I would consider it safe to say that the marketing for “Atomic Blonde” has been a tad misleading. Based on the advertising, we’ve been led to believe that “Atomic Blonde” was “John Wick, minus the d*ck”, as one critic claimed. In truth, I found the movie was more like “Jason Bourne, but a woman”. Much like the last “Jason Bourne” movie (which was painfully underwhelming in itself), “Atomic Blonde” is more about solving a murder mystery, with some flurries of action mixed in, than being a movie designed solely as a showcasing of supreme stunt coordination that the “John Wick” movies have been. That being said, no, this is not a movie of just Charlize Theron cutting through people like a human chainsaw from start to finish. However, if you are going to see this movie just for the visuals of Charlize turning men into her personal punching bags, and a few scenes when she turns Sofia Boutella into her personal thighmaster, then this movie will not disappoint in those areas!
Adapted from the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, written for the screen by Kurt Johnstad (the screenwriter of both “300” movies), and directed by David Leitch (the co-director of “John Wick”, and future director of “Deadpool 2”), “Atomic Blonde” is a spy drama that takes place during the final days of the Cold War. The Berlin War is a week away from falling down, but while the world is focused on that major event, they aren’t aware of a smaller event that happened in the city. A wristwatch that contains a microfilm with a listing of every secret agent that’s undercover in the Soviet Union has been stolen from a murdered MI6 agent. What’s even worse is that there maybe a double agent working both sides, and he or she must be found, along with that microfilm. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Find the MacGuffin device and confront the traitor. That’s the story we’re following when we’re not watching Charlize working her magic during fighting scenes.
As you can tell from my semi-dismissive tone, I wasn’t too happy that the movie was using two of the most run of the mill plot devices in every spy movie ever made in the past half century. Some may argue that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I was hoping for something a bit more than that. But let’s all be honest here, the plot is not why we’re here to see this movie. As I have mentioned before, this movie is a total star vehicle for Charlize Theron, as she takes her place upon the throne of being the reigning Queen of Action Movie Heroism. Theron, who has previously made her mark in the action movie genre with “Aeon Flux” (what a wasted opportunity that was) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (please let there be a Furiosa spin-off movie), portrays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent who was a former lover of the fallen MI6 that lost the microfilm. She is sent to Berlin to get back the microfilm, and kill whoever it is that is aiding the Soviet spies. Along the way, Lorraine meets her contact and handler in David Percival (played by James McEvoy), and a novice French spy in the form of Delphine Lasalle (played by Sofia Boutella).
To say that “Atomic Blonde” is style over substance is an understatement. This is a movie that is all about audio and visuals. Timestamps and location markers are spray painted onto the screen. Nearly every scene is bathed in bright neon lights. And pop music hits of the 1980s are played in the background, to mixed results, depending on what’s happening on screen. At best, it’s easy to tell this movie apart from others based on these elements. It would be hard to not recognize it at a glance. And hey, I love my 80s music, and thanks to movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Baby Driver”, having a soundtrack loaded with classics from 30-40 years ago is all the rage in movies these days. I won’t complain, so long as it fits within the scene in question.
Theron pours herself into Lorraine Broughton. She’s a woman of few words, but her steely gaze speaks volumes. Indeed, Theron’s eyes emote anything from lust towards Boutella’s Delphine, to seething hatred towards her attackers, to sadness as she thinks about what a wreck her life has become. The silent yet violent gimmick worked for Keanu Reeves in “John Wick”, and it works just as well with Theron here. Unfortunately, her co-stars aren’t as good. Not that I’m saying they’re awful, but they simply can’t live up to the level that Theron is working on. McEvoy, while he does deliver the best one-liner in the movie during his introductory scene, is otherwise uninteresting throughout the rest of the movie. Sure, seeing him play his character like a British rockstar is an inspired choice, but I wish he did more with it. Then again, it’s hard to top the acting tour de force that was his performances in “Split”.
Boutella, who I loved and adored in “Kingsmen” and “Star Trek Beyond”, does well for herself, as she only has to interact with Theron for the most of her scenes. She does have a subtle charm and charisma that shines through without her trying all that hard. And it is sweet to hear her speaking in a French accent. Sadly, her role could be significantly larger. Much like many a Bond Girl, you can guess what happens to her after meeting, aiding, and of course, bedding the secret agent. Speaking of which, the lesbian love scenes between Theron and Boutella are tastefully done. If you’re expecting seven minute long takes of the women as they bump and grind against each other, no, sorry, it never gets that graphic or raw. But hey, at least a lesbian relationship is being represented matter of factly, and without any fanfare or exploitation to it. Although, no lie, Boutella looks great naked.
Rounding out the cast are Toby Jones as Broughton’s MI6 superior, and John Goodman as CIA agent working alongside the MI6. Frankly, neither actor is giving much to work with, so their performances aren’t anything special to watch. Really, their appearances come across as excuses for the audiences to say “Hey, it’s that British character actor that I saw in that movie that other time”, or “Yet another credit to John Goodman’s resume! Can we please give this man an Oscar already?” Yeah, literally anyone could have played these roles, and there wouldn’t be any difference to them besides the recognisable faces.
Which brings us to the main reason why we are seeing this movie for the first place, the fighting scenes. Oh my, the fighting scenes. It’s not like there’s an action scene every ten minutes, but when one does happen, it is a sight to behold. Broughton uses her surroundings whenever she can, and uses whatever item she can get her hands on to turn it into a weapon. As I pointed out, she is a female Jason Bourne in that aspect. The standout fighting sequence is a long, uncut brawl that is brutal, and while it seems like it will never end, it manages to one-up itself as it further plays out. It is destined to be looked back on as one of the greatest movie fights of all time.
If I had to give the movie credit for one thing that makes it stick out from other action movies, I would say it’s the hints of realism to their approaches on how violence plays out, and what effects it has on people. During the prolonged fight sequence that is the movie’s highlight, we see Broughton and her attackers are getting tired and winded. At one point, they can barely stand up on their own feet. This is refreshing to see, after all, most fighting sequences show the combatants going in fresh as daisies, and ending the fights just as fresh as they were when it started. Nope, in this case, you can see the toll that is being taken. Likewise, this is the first movie that I recall where battle scars and injuries don’t magically disappear in the very next scene, or at least not with a woman fighter because she’s slapped some coverup on in between the scene transitions. No, we see Broughton covered with bruises on her face and body, and we’re made fully aware that she has been through hell and back to stay alive. She even regularly takes ice water baths to numb the pain away, although these scenes can be written off as excuses to see Theron naked, which by the way, we do.
However, the movie is not without its other flaws. Once again, the plot is nothing all that creative. The moment we’re told there’s a double agent hidden within the MI6 ranks, you know almost right away who the double agent is, in the most on the nose manner. Also, the dialogue isn’t inspired either. Yes, there’s one or two good one-liners peppered every once and awhile, but you won’t be quoting this movie decades from now. In fact, there’s time where the dialogue gets too repetitive. If you make a drinking game of taking a shot everytime someone says “Berlin”, oh, you will die of alcohol poisoning!
In conclusion, while Theron steals the show, the fighting scenes are great eye candy, the 80s music is always welcome, and Boutella further proves that she needs to star in every action movie that’s made in the next two decades, the other aspects of the movie are nothing to write home about. I give “Atomic Blonde” 3 out of 5 stars. For those who want a more professional take on the movie, it’s currently at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes.
If you’re like me, and you love action movie with female leads, then you will consider “Atomic Blonde” a fun movie to watch at least once in your lifetime. But “Wonder Woman” remains the top female action movie of this summer. All that being said, I’ll see you next time for the next review. And please, when you go to the movies, wait for the end credits to roll before you get up to leave, or you could find yourself standing in the aisle as the movie goes on for another scene. That happened in my (rather small) theater, much to my annoyance. First world problems, I know.