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Atomic Blonde movie is set in the tinderbox days right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, where the East’s punk counterculture met the West’s ‘80s excess.
In adapting graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde becomes a far narrative step from John Wick, dealing so deeply as it does with the twisting, backstabbing intrigue of Cold War espionage thrillers. A genre we’re probably not used to watching with such a bright, neon sheen (it’s usually all dark rooms and serious men in overcoats), but it makes total sense.
Lorraine is set to the city to get a missing list of espionage agents and their real identities, although she first comes into contact with Percival (James McAvoy), who’s been undercover for so long he’s grown to have a certain thing for Berlin’s charming, dangerous side. McAvoy, at some point in his career, decided “crazy” was his new default as an actor, but the results remain thrillingly entertaining; he’s a colourful character, in a colourful story which bounces from twist to twist.
When it comes to the future of action cinema, at least as far as set pieces go, guys like David Leitch are shaping the future. After years or so of everyone using shaky cam and hoping it would turn out like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, Leitch and his John Wick co-director Chad Stahleski are forming a new way of showing action in a neat, thrilling, and intriguing manner. Leitch brings that inventiveness to Atomic Blonde, which he directed solo, and while the set pieces are as exciting as one would expect, not enough attention is paid to the story. It’s filled with spy thriller conventions of double and triple crosses, but you fail to take in as the characters are so painfully unamusing. Leitch then drenches Atomic Blonde film in neon and 80s tunes, but it all feels overcooked rather than embellishments to serve the story.
Set in 1989 right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story follows MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who’s relating the story of her mission in Berlin to her superiors at headquarters in London. Lorraine was sent to Berlin to retrieve a list of agent identities that was stolen off the body of her former lover. Once in Berlin, she comes to fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy), who informs her that adding to the list, they also have to secure defecting Stasi agent “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan). At the same time, KGB agents are always trying to eliminate Lorraine since they also want to retrieve the list.
While John Wick could coast on its action thanks to a coherent plot, a comically simple premise (they killed his puppy!), and a rich world that we always wanted to dig into, Atomic Blonde is always getting caught in a story it doesn’t know how to handle. Atomic Blonde film throws a ton of characters in our face, but Leitch can’t handle the intrigue, so we’re never invested in anyone. Lorraine is icy and detached, David is wild and hot-tempered, and the movie never makes it clear what they’re supposed to be doing together. He’s her contact in Berlin, but because she’s told to “trust no one”, she’s always off doing her own thing, leaving the film to conspicuously dangle David into the story even though he doesn’t really fit.
Atomic Blonde film continually leaps between its framing device, West Berlin, and East Berlin as if it’s terrified it’s going to lose your catch if there’s anything other than action featuring on the screen. But the issue is that for all the trappings Leitch piles on to his film from the 80s-packed soundtrack to the neon color palette of the interiors to the icy blues of the exteriors we’re not amused with the characters. Lorraine is an action-delivery system but without any pathos. Theron’s attempt to play Lorraine as a hardened operative transforms her into a remote killing machine. The actress has way more range than the character provides, and it’s almost like the pitch was “Just do Aeon Flux again but the set pieces will be much better.”
And the action is undoubtedly greater than just about anything else out there with maybe the exception of the John Wick films. While Leitch teases us with a few short skirmishes, he actually lets loose at the climax of the second act with a single long take that’s absolutely out of this world. It almost feels like the entire movie exists just so this fight scene can happen, and I have to admit that the fight scene is worth it. It’s just that extraordinary. The way Leitch captures all the action, the way Theron sells out of the fisticuffs, and the complete brutality of it all is astonishing. It makes you wish that the rest of the movie was even half as exhilarating.
I love the concept of Atomic Blonde movie—Charlize Theron as one-woman war machine who’s capable of taking down anyone who gets in her way. Sadly, the spy thriller encircling all of that and the weak characterization weakens the strength of the premise, so all of the trappings appear like they’re doing the heavy lifting as the story and characters of Atomic Blonde film aren’t enough to get you interested in. You’ll bop your head along to the 80s tunes, you’ll cheer at the set pieces, and then you’ll try to figure out what it all added up to.