Atomic Blonde is the delirious and electric kind of kinetic nonsense that it’s hard not to love. Overflowing with charisma, this is a movie that doesn’t want to be much more than a belligerent experiment in panache. It’s a thumping, hip ride that has zero brakes, several gas pedals, and a whole bunch of steez.
It does, however, harbor far more problems than its likely comparisons. The plot found here, for instance, is far more convoluted than the straightforward chase of Mad Max: Fury Road and it lacks the steady determination of a John Wick. But it does start simple enough.
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, it tells the story of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an MI6 spy sent to Berlin to recover something called The List. It’s a piece of microfilm that contains the name of every active field agent in the Soviet Union and, supposedly, reveals the identity of a potential double agent that goes by the codename Satchel. It’s a tall order, so it’s a good thing she’s got Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to help.
It’s rough, though, for the story because as more characters pile into the plot and motivations come wavering in and out of existence, it becomes rather taxing to keep tabs on it all. There’s not much impetus for you to even try to do so, but due to some lax pacing, it’s just about all you have to do at certain points. It tries to blend together Lorraine’s personal investment (and world-weary perspective) into this loose parable involving the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it never quite gets there.
But through the sheer magnetism of Theron and McAvoy, it’s hard to not to keep looking at the screen even during the slower parts. And throw in French femme fatale Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) and it’s an impossible level of rapture. No one in particular is stretching their acting limits here, but they all lean into what director David Leitch is going for so that it ends up a compelling feature either way.
They all fit into this strangely ethereal 80s aesthetic, too, that Leitch and director of photography Jonathan Sela have cultivated. Infusing it with the dripping neon vibe of his co-directorial debut in John Wick, it feels like a hyper realistic dream as classic synth new wave tracks collide with modern sounds. The trailer’s Depeche Mode x Kanye West mashup is fantastically emblematic of this sensation, as is the wildly grimy streets of Berlin smashing up against the crisp wardrobe of Theron’s Lorraine. (It also does a neat storytelling trick regarding her colors that I won’t ruin.)
On a meta level, it’s also incredibly satisfying to see Theron, star of the same movie that caused men’s rights activists to boycott one of the best action films ever made, engage in a lesbian relationship while kicking exclusively dude ass. Purposeful or not, it feels like a lovingly pointed Fuck You to those misogynistic dummies—dummies that will undoubtedly find this movie just as disagreeable.
Of course, that’s not the point. And neither is the story, per se. Almost too obviously, this movie is about putting one of the best new action directors out there with a stupendous action (and drama) actor and letting them go hog-wild. Theron’s efforts to perfect her training has clearly paid off, giving Leitch the freedom to film fight scenes in extravagant and delectable ways.
One of the best examples is a scrap set to George Michael’s “Father Figure” where, thanks to Theron and the stunt team’s preparation, the camera is able to shoot wide with deliberate framing. Instead of cutting into and out of reactions, we are able to view the entire cause and effect all at once, giving the scene a natural propensity and excitement. And despite being in a tightly confined apartment set, setups are clear and focused, antithetical to the sort of action you’d get from, say, a Paul Greengrass film.
It’s also a perfect example of how Leitch views action. The actors, the set, all the props, and the camera are all part of an intricate dance. When one moves, the others move, and they revolve and dip and spin around each other until there’s just the lone survivor standing. You can really see this in a late fight sequence posed as a fake and protracted one-shot where rather than just moving side to side, the camera also frames the battle along multiple stories in a spiraling stairwell.
Frames will settle up along dramatic shots of Lorraine contemplating her next move before sliding right into a two-man slog into a wall and then ending on juggling a handful of bad guys ganging up on our heroine with a touch of comic relief in the background. And this is while we traverse thirty feet down to the street, all the way into a car, and straight into a chase still within the same mock oner. It’s both masterful and a miracle that we never lose track of the action.
It’s in stark contrast to most modern action films (especially as the other recent high spectacle movie featured Christopher Nolan’s trademark inability to shoot human-level conflicts in any digestible way). It knows precisely what it wants to be and is willing to crash down through several rooftops and dozens of walls to get there. Atomic Blonde is a mess in many ways, but it is also a thrilling, gorgeous, hypnotic mess.
Final Score: 8 out of 10