Backstabbing, Russians, ambiguity
Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, the titular Atomic Blonde, and slips comfortably into her role as a suave, brutal, manipulative super spy. Unfortunately, the film as a whole falls into many of the graphic novel-into-film pitfalls of over-stylised action and undercooked characters.
The film takes place in Berlin as the Wall comes tumbling down and the USSR slowly crumbles with it. Broughton is assigned by MI6 to travel to the German capital to retrieve ‘The List’ of all double agents in the spy network, and the Stasi agent responsible for leaking it (Eddie Marsan). While there she will make a contact with fellow spy and renegade David Percival (James McAvoy), and sultry French femme Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).
Atomic Blonde takes a smug pride in a noir genre trope of the plot making less and less sense as the climax edges closer, but what could be a subtle study of murky character motivations at a convulsive time in the spy game instead often feels convoluted and uninvolving.
If the plot of the film leaves something to be desired the setting and action both have their saving graces. Berlin 1989 is a fun place to set a movie, and Atomic Blonde features it all from strait-laced Stasi to underground punk hedonism.
While this is a fully realized environment it never completely integrates into the film, most notably a great 80s soundtrack that feels layered on top with a wink and a nudge. Watching a Russian beat an East German with a skateboard to the sound of ’99 Luftballons’ is certainly fun, but Atomic Blonde never captures the courage and wit of say Reservoir Dogs use of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.
Charlize Theron is a solid performer as ever, and exudes a charm and intensity whenever she is onscreen. Unfortunately, her character feels a little too cryptic to connect with fully, and it’s sometimes hard to care for her plight when she seems so uninvested herself.
The hyperactivity of the fight scenes displays some superb choreography (especially in one long take as Theron takes on a pack of KGB agents), but coupled with the film’s use of a flashback conceit give Broughton an aura of invincibility that again takes the viewer out.
McAvoy is able to have a little fun, but alas still in a two tone way. Something that could have added a little to both his and Theron’s characters is if the sexual tension between the two was explored more fully. As for supporting, Eddie Marsan is great with what he’s given, while Toby Jones and John Goodman are spectacularly underutilized (I assume the latter was cast for his role in the classic satire of this genre The Big Lebowski).
I take no shame in calling the lesbian sex scene my undisputed highlight of the film. Theron and Boutella drink up the screen together, and when sparks do fly it is brief but shot so as to visually engage without vulgarity.
This directorial debut from David Leitch certainly shows action film potential. Hopefully, his is a future film career in which the conflict can keep its frenetic pace while presenting the viewer with characters and scenarios they can really care about.