Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a cool spy thriller from stuntman-turned-director David Leitch starring a sultry, no-nonsense Charlize Theron. Set before the collapse of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War we find an MI6 agent behind enemy lines trying to get hold of a top-secret list. Charlize Theron was in the superhero actioner Aeon Flux, and has extended her league of leading roles in action films by essentially taking on a James Bond type. While the action, car chases, cold-blooded precision and stylish verve match the current mood of Bond, it’s got an ’80s feel to it, using the cold urban slates of Berlin and neon lights to give it a comic book style.

It’s a very committed performance from Theron, which we’ve come to expect from the actress, and she does herself a great service by taking on another challenging action role. She was quite amazing as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and is equally impressive in Atomic Blonde as Lorraine Broughton. Theron’s supported by a rock solid cast including: James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones. McAvoy is a consummate professional and never fails to impress, playing a cantankerous undercover agent and “second-in-command” to Theron.

Goodman is an American suit, Marsan is a comical stasi agent, Boutella is a temptress and Jones takes on the role of a British intelligence officer who is interviewing Lorraine. It’s based on the graphic novel The Coldest City and you get the impression that Theron was influenced by a comic strip called Modesty Blaise, which was published in South African newspapers in the ’80s. This could have also inspired her to take the role of Aeon Flux, and after Mad Max: Fury Road, she’s reinvented herself to stay relevant in an age where established name stars seem to be appearing in Taken type star vehicles.

The soundtrack is memorable, nostalgic even, conjuring up the reactionary music revolution at the time. It immerses you in the Zeitgeist, while the visuals complete the picture with the most timeless elements of the ’80s in terms of styling, most notably the choice of eye wear. While a fairly cold-blooded character, Theron makes Lorraine her own, giving the highly trained agent a bulletproof panache and indomitable drive. She’s fearless, seemingly undertaking on many of her own stunts, bold in nude scenes and not hesitating when it comes to bone-crunching action.

 “I’m always smokin’…”

While Atomic Blonde is laden with breathless action, it struggles to activate its true potential as a story, making this a case of style over substance. Perhaps this visual slant is to be expected from Kurt Johnstad, one of the lead screenwriters on Frank Miller’s 300. While intriguing, the narrative doesn’t go deep enough down the rabbit hole or offer much depth when it comes to characterisation. The strong cast redeem the characters somewhat by offering plucky performances but it’s not nearly as confident as the action on display. While there are lots of twists and turns around a list of double agents, it’s not so much engaging as it is eye-popping. 

It’s comparable with John Wick, where Keanu Reeves took the mantle of an assassin to new heights by effectively turning action sequences into a beautiful stream of fight choreography. This was expanded upon in John Wick 2, making it seem like gun ballet, and has detonated a dam wall for films like Atomic Blonde. Going in with this expectation will certainly make the experience more enjoyable. If you’re expecting John Le Carre espionage, you may be disappointed. There are several particularly memorable scenes, where Theron unleashes her dark side on the bad guys. One particularly brilliant sequence involving a pulsating and breathless single shot simulation, similar to Children of Men, is elevated by the urgency of its Jason Bourne pacing.

The coolness factor is strong with Atomic Blonde, reminiscent of the film Control in terms of its moody use of lighting and even cigarette smoke. The film seems to have been shot on location in Berlin, really getting a great idea of the hard lines and scale of the city. You could even imagine the film pulling off a similar black-and-white scheme to Sin City. Much like an extended music video, there’s a great deal of importance placed on the composition, style and production values.

Atomic Blonde is a thriller that is best enjoyed with a focus on the visuals, then on Theron’s hard edged lead performance with the nostalgic and otherworldly lashings of ’80s style. While it’s certainly not her best performance in recent years, she shows enough mettle to attract similar roles in the future. David Leitch demonstrates that he can create compelling visuals, but he struggles to leverage the best from the screenplay and his cast of fine actors. 

While visually compelling, the film has a superficial nature, skipping over some characters instead of allowing them to seep into the celluloid. It’s a pity that it seems the storyboard and visual realisation was prioritised over creating full-fledged supporting characters within a compelling and layered story. Thankfully, the quality of the ingredients, the panache carried through by Theron and even the mood add up to make it an admirable, often enjoyable, but not entirely engaging experience.

The bottom line: Suave