Rated: R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.
“Atomic Blonde” is an action spy thriller from director David Leitch, a former stunt performer who worked on such notable films as “Fight Club”, “300”, “The Born Legacy”. It is based on the black and white graphic novel “The Coldest City” and stars Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, and John Goodman. “Atomic Blonde” takes place in the waining days of the cold war just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and centers on covert agent Lorraine Broughton played by Theron. Lorraine is sent into Berlin following the murder of a fellow agent to retrieve a list that is said to contain the names of covert agents from numerous agencies on both sides of the iron curtain. She is supposed to be working with British agent David Percival played by McAvoy. But, nothing is simple and Lorraine is targeted by the KGB as soon as she arrives in Berlin. It seems there is a turncoat going by the name of Satchel who is leaking information. Lorraine must navigate the different dangers and stay alive while attempting to keep the mysterious list from making it into the wrong hands.
Most spy movies are fairly straightforward when it comes to the economics of their plots. James Bond works for MI6 and represents the good guys as he attempts to stop some villain from a nefarious scheme. While there may be some intrigue when it comes to uncovering the specifics of the plot there is a lot that isn’t questioned in traditional spy films. “Atomic Blonde” is different because those lines are a bit more blurry. It’s not so clear who the good guys or bad guys are or if those distinctions even apply in a world where lies and deceptions are the norm. The plot is a Rubix Cube of constantly shifting elements that start to make sense as the different sides click into place. Right up to the end of the film there are reveals that continue to change your perception of what’s happened. In amidst all the twists and turns “Atomic Blonde” manages some subtle commentary on the genre it’s steeped in. While Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman” was more of a parody of spy films, “Atomic” takes the opportunity to make quiet observations and challenge preconceptions. For instance one character tells Lorraine spies don’t know the difference between truth and lies to which she replies that they know the truth they just choose to ignore it. Another example is the decision by Theron and writer Kurt Johnson to give Lorraine a female love interest in Sofia Boutella’s Delphine. Some of these elements work, some feel forced but either way “Atomic Blonde” does stand out from the field.
Powered by David Leitch’s stunt background the action sequences and fight scenes are brutal and visceral but grounded enough to be utterly believable. It’s worth noting that Theron did a majority of her own stunt work in the film which gave the filmmakers the freedom to shoot the action sequences with a high degree of clarity. That is to say there isn’t a lot of fast paced jump cutting sequences as has become popular in many action films today. In contrast in “Atomic Blonde” action is both energetic and followable which helps build tension as it keeps you in the moment. The Director of Photography Jonathan Sela (“John Wick”) beautifully handles the cinematography, using a predominately cold palette of blues to convey the chill of the city and the characters.
“Atomic Blonde” is beautifully complex… but it is perhaps a little too complex. The twists and turns come one after another each building on the last. If you aren’t keeping up you’ll quickly find yourself lost. While there’s nothing wrong with this per se there are points where “Atomic Blonde” could have done more to clarify it’s plot. The pacing is a little uneven moving from quiet moments of Theron brooding in an ice bath, to break-neck action sequences, to the final act which contains a lot of dense plot reveals. These shifts don’t break the film but does make it feel a little uneven. Next “Atomic Blonde” spends a little too much time on some of the more sensationalistic elements edging on gratuitous amounts of nudity and sex. Some of these moments are well motivated and justified by context but I can’t help but feel they were carried a step or two too far. I tend to feel less is more in these situations but again this is more a matter of personal preference then an objective critique. Lastly I had an issue with the films sound track. Like “Baby Driver” earlier this summer, “Atomic Blonde” is fueled by none stop music. However, unlike “Baby Driver” there’s no anchor for it and it comes in and out at odd times. Sometimes this works while at others it is more distracting then motivating.
“Atomic Blonde” is a complex if somewhat superficial film with enough intrigue and well executed action to make it a successful entry in the spy genre. While some have suggested Theron is the first female 007 I don’t think the comparison holds. Sure she drinks vodka, kills people and isn’t above using sex to get information but Lorraine is a more nuanced character then Bond and as I’ve said the film is a bit more complex. The historical setting helps add another layer of intrigue and helps elevate “Atomic Blonde” above some of it’s cut and paste brethren. If you are a fan of the spy genre you will likely enjoy this film.
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