Review: ‘Atomic Blonde’

Atomic Blonde
Courtesy of Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

Charlize Theron cuts a bloody swath through 1989 Berlin in this technically-dazzling yet fundamentally empty action pic.

Toward the end of “Atomic Blonde,” David Leitch’s hyperviolent, hyperstylized action pic set in Berlin just before the fall of the wall, Charlize Theron’s MI6 superwoman Lorraine Broughton is tasked with protecting a Stasi defector. He’s been wounded on the street, and she drags him into a building lobby. “Wait here,” she says, and proceeds to do brutal battle with waves of henchmen up an elevator, down a staircase, into an apartment, out of the apartment, with a gun, without a gun, with an unloaded gun, with stray bits of furniture, back out into the street, into a car, forward in the car, and then in reverse. The scene lasts a good five minutes, and does not contain a single obvious cut. It is worth the price of admission alone.

It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the film can’t help but feel like a long prelude to this single bravura display of technique. Sure, the film has style to burn, employing enough neon lighting to power the Las Vegas Strip for weeks. Theron casts an indomitable figure throughout, and the camera lingers on every contour of her face and body with an intensity that verges on the fetishistic. The action set pieces are every bit the equal of Leitch’s previous effort, “John Wick,” and “Atomic Blonde” should at least equal that film’s box office tally when it’s released this summer.

But so much uncut hardboiled posturing proves exhausting over a nearly two-hour runtime, and with zero emotional stakes and a plot that is both difficult and seemingly pointless to follow, there’s a fundamental emptiness behind all the flash. Virtuosic kick-ass filmmaking can be its own reward, but to paraphrase “Idiocracy,” you still need to care about whose ass it is, and why it’s being kicked.

Lifted from Antony Johnston’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” “Atomic Blonde’s” heroine is a blank slate of emotionless efficiency. A master of cold stares and even colder line readings, Lorraine’s entire diet appears to consist of frozen Stoli on the rocks. We watch her emerge nude from an ice bath more than once, and her introductory scene is shot with so much blue lighting it may as well have been filmed inside a glacier.

She’s looking very worse-for-wear as she undergoes debriefing with her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a no-nonsense CIA chief (John Goodman), narrating the events of the previous ten days in flashback. Her mission began in West Berlin: After the murder of a key agent, a list containing the names and whereabouts of every British intelligence asset has gone missing.

In order to find it, Lorraine has to rendezvous with David Percival (James McAvoy), a debauched former Berlin bureau chief who’s recently “gone feral,” selling black market Jack Daniel’s and Jordache to track-suited East Berliners while they breakdance to Public Enemy. It’s never entirely clear where his sympathies lie, but he has access to an East German operative (Eddie Marsan) who has committed the entire list to memory, and he also lets Lorraine know that a double agent, known as Satchel, may be lurking somewhere in their midst.

Although Lorraine unwinds each night by listening to audio surveillance recordings, and starts each morning by taping a recording device to her torso (both while wearing expensive-looking lingerie, of course), we scarcely get to see her do much espionage work. Mostly, she shows up at various locations impeccably dressed, attracts the attention of various assassins, and dispatches them with spectacular displays of violence. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off both the ice-queen glamour and punishing physical requirements of the role as well as Theron, who at this point has become as reliable an action hero as Schwarzenegger and Stallone ever were. Yet her character remains inscrutable, with few deeper motivations and even less in the way of backstory. At least we knew John Wick liked dogs.

The closest she comes to revealing a human being behind the killing-machine exterior comes when she meets up with a wet-behind-the-ears French spy (Sofia Boutella), who quickly becomes her lover. But Leitch seems uninterested in developing relationships between his characters, leaving them to scamper about on parallel tracks until the hazy machinations of the plot conspire to bring them together. The film’s villains barely register, and bonus points to anyone who can explain exactly what Til Schweiger’s character is supposed to be doing here.

What Leitch is interested in, however, is brute spectacle and jaw-dropping stuntwork, and on those counts he succeeds mightily. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela does excellent work with some very complex fight choreography, capturing the mayhem in deep, saturated tones, and the film presents a believable facsimile of 1989 Germany. A good two dozen pop singles from the decade make appearances, though strangely enough for a film that was only recently retitled “Atomic Blonde,” Blondie’s “Atomic” is not one of them.

Review: 'Atomic Blonde'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 12, 2017. Running time: 115 MINS.

Production

A Focus Features presentation, in association with Sierra Pictures, of a Denver & Delilah, Chickie the Cop, TGIM Films, 87Eleven production. Producers: Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A.J. Dix, Kelly McCormick, Eric Gitter, Peter Schwerin. Executive producers: Nick Meyer, Marc Schaberg, Joe Nozemack, Steven V. Scavelli, Ethan Smith, David Guillod, Kurt Johnstad.

Crew

Director: David Leitch. Screenplay, Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston. Camera (color): Jonathan Sela. Editor: Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir.

With

Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones. (English, German, Russian, Swedish dialogue)

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  1. Alison Ponce says:

    it isn’t hard to follow unless you are kinda dumb.

  2. atomic blonde is a great action movie I under stood the story line and where they were coming from
    I luv it I tell my friends and I look forward to seeing again if you want to leave the movies going yes atomic blonde rocks this is the movie for you action it brings it Cool x2 ))))))))

  3. Firefly says:

    Spot on review. Awesome fighting scene, terrible screenplay. Zero emotional content. It was so fake and boring that we made fun of it all the way through!

  4. loco73 says:

    We must have watched two very different movies, because what I saw was a visceral, engaging, stylish and high octane movie. No story?! Actually the story is not too complicated to follow at all and I found it actually good, especially the ending.

    Overhyped crap like “Wonder Woman” gets soo much praise, and everybody gushes over Gal Gadot’s wooden, stiff and limited performance, and yet here you have Theron pull off one of the most memorable female action leads and she gets the cold shoulder.

    Not since since Gina Carano and her excellent performance in Steven Sodebergh’s “Haywire”, hace I seen am actress pull off an action role with such gusto.

    • Peter Neagle says:

      I agree, the reviewer must have watched a different movie to me. I just got home from watching it and enjoyed the movie and the main character. There were a few things i disliked but that had a lot to do with the cinematography and the lighting they used for lots of scenes like the opening scene that is blue.

      I have to admit the last 60 seconds brings the entire movie together and makes it all enjoyable and make sense.

  5. MovieBabble says:

    I’m very intrigued by this film. It appears that it’s following the typical genre cliches of past spy movies, but I love Leitch’s style of action. If nothing else, I’ll probably be entertained by seeing Theron kick some tail!

    • Mac Girl says:

      Exactly, why does a spy film need an emotional arc? Spies and assassins are supposed to be emotionless when doing their job. That’s what makes the movie great. This isn’t a revenge film, or save someone film, it’s a spy film.

      I feel like the reviewer didn’t understand the genre.

  6. Fool Me Twice? says:

    If they do make another Mad Max, I really hope that she’s not in it. They’ve done that movie already. As it is, her character was only a smokescreen to cover up for the absence of Mel Gibson. George Miller also hid Tom Hardy behind a mask for the first third of the movie. The real concern is that Miller likely has little faith in Hardy to carry a Mad Max movie on his own.

  7. AUTOSPOOK says:

    EVERY fictional movie chick spy plays on the original American Black Canary mold and this one is no different. And the Americans weren’t and aren’t the misogynists or the bureaucrats, that being exactly opposite of the way the real Americans have always operated, all straight, trim and far from narrow. Those misogynist and bureaucratic roles in real life are perfectly filled by the perfectly Bondless British without an original thought to their name. This movie is made for propaganda entertainment at best.

    Of course, the Americans based their original model of Black Canary on their real Black Canaries whom shall always remain a private affair of which they seldom publicly disclose.

  8. Ningishzidda says:

    “as reliable an action hero as Schwarzenegger and Stallone ever were”

    Wow. I can scarcely recall having ever read a more exaggerated misnomer from a movie critic. Looking through Theron’s entire filmography, her action roles include:

    -Aeon Flux, where she is only slightly better than Halle Berry was in Catwoman
    -Hancock, where all of her action scenes are CGI
    -Snow White, more CGI gobbledygook
    -Prometheus, a stretch to call this an action role, but easy to say this is one of her worst films (and worst films in general)
    -Fury Road, she was great in this but in the two years since this move came out, the novelty of a female Mad Max has worn off

    I’d hardly call this meager serving of action roles in anyway equivalent to classics such as Terminator, Rambo, Predator, Conan, True Lies, Total Recall, Cobra, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, Judge Dredd, etc.

  9. Jason says:

    Atomic was on Eat to the Beat which came out in 1979. It makes sense it’s not in a film set a full decade later. Does anyone fact check anymore?

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