This is actually a tougher film to review than you might think. Allow me to explain. First and foremost, Atomic Blonde has a handful of tremendous action sequences, including one that on a staircase and continues outside that appears to be a single take (it’s faked, but it’s still impressive). The credit for these portions of the film go to the stunt team led by director David Leitch, a former stuntman and stunt coordinator, who helmed (in an uncredited fashion) John Wick and is currently shooting Deadpool 2. Naturally, the film’s lead, Charlize Theron, also does incredible, genuinely physical work, following up turns in Mad Max: Fury Road (in which she kicked many tons of ass) and The Fate of the Furious (in which she sat behind a computer screen). She plays a MI6 spy working in Berlin just as the Wall is about to come down, ending the Cold War.
Based on “The Coldest City” graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart (adapted by Kurt Johnstad), Atomic Blonde burdens us with a twisting, loopy plot that is beyond unnecessarily complicated, bordering on incomprehensible. It involves a list that everyone is trying to get their hands on (apparently it reveals the names and dirty secrets of many a secret agent). The keeper of said list is a German defector named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who is being helped by MI6’s Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to get out of the country with said list, which he has memorized. (If they really didn’t want the list to get out, why wouldn’t they just kill Spyglass? Maybe I’m thinking too much.) Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is brought in at the behest of her chief “C” (James Faulkner) to make sure all goes well with the transfer of Spyglass and because Percival is a bit of a loose cannon, bordering on traitorous. Shockingly enough, not everything goes smoothly.
To further complicated things, the entire story is told in flashback as a seriously beat-up Broughton is being debriefed by an MIG interrogator (Toby Jones) and his CIA counterpart (John Goodman). Her adventures in Berlin also include an ally named Merkel (Bill Skarsgård, soon to be seen as the evil clown Pennywise in It) and French operative Delphine (Sofia Boutella of Star Trek Beyond and The Mummy), who effectively seduces Broughton—whether it’s for pleasure or information is unclear at first.
Theron is solid in Atomic Blonde, although her cool, passionless performance does start to feel a bit one-note after a while. The color schemes, art direction, and period-specific music cues are all quite effective at establishing a time and place in history, and it’s genuinely amusing to watch history happen in the background of this silly spy story, but it’s all servicing truly uninspired story and characters. McAvoy’s Percival is meant to seem unhinged and unpredictable, when he’s really just an annoying dick. There was never a single doubt in my mind where his allegiances rested, and it’s an agonizing nearly two-hour wait for that reveal. There’s no getting around that a great deal of this movie is tedious and predictable.
But! Those damn action scenes get me every time. It’s clear what director Leitch’s priorities are here, and I hope he does better work with stronger scripts in the future. Atomic Blonde solidifies Theron’s position as one of the top action stars working today (male or female), and I’m aware that it’s impossible to top Fury Road in terms of sheer quality. Still, I’m hoping if there are further adventures of Lorraine Broughton in a post-Cold War world that whoever makes give the screenplay another pass and makes it something worthy of its lead actor. It’s a close call, but ultimately I can’t quite recommend it, but if you’re only mission this summer is to stuff as many top-notch action sequences into your eyes as possible, you should enjoy Atomic Blonde.