2017, R, 115 min. Directed by David Leitch. Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Roland Møller.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 28, 2017
Set in 1989 Berlin as the wall separating the East from the West was about to crumble forever, Atomic Blonde is a dark, violent, and sexy spy thriller that emphasizes surface over substance. Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the icy cool MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who is sent to the city to recover a list of the undercover operatives working there before the information falls into the hands of Russia’s KGB. In recent years, Theron has become one of cinema’s top female action stars, impeccably lethal in both looks and deeds. Here, watching Theron is just about the whole show, and to the film’s credit, this is usually a mesmerizing rather than crass experience.
Do not come to Atomic Blonde, however, for fresh spy scenarios or delicious double-crosses. The plot, whose screenplay by Kurt Johnstad is based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, is convoluted enough to remain just out of complete grasp but not interesting enough to bother connecting all the dots. The story unfolds as Lorraine is debriefed by her MI6 superior (Jones) and a CIA official (Goodman) about the events of the previous 10 days during which she tangled with the ambiguously aligned Berlin Bureau Chief David Percival (McAvoy), an East German Stasi spy (Marsan) who has the prized list of operatives stored in his head, and the French agent Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), whose political alignments are also ambiguous even if her sexual interest in Lorraine is not. All of these exchanges are fairly pedestrian. However, the way in which they are staged, most certainly, is not.
First-time director David Leitch (a former stuntman and stunt designer, who is also credited with staging the distinctive action sequences for John Wick) can perhaps be forgiven for putting most of his eggs in the action basket for his first solo directing gig. He breaks nary a one in the film’s many breathtakingly staged set-pieces. A bloody and climactic sequence set in many rooms and the stairwell of an apartment building, while Lorraine turns anything and everything at hand into a weapon, is as stunning a fight sequence as you’re likely to see this year. Yet if you’re looking to care about characters or who’s fighting for which side, you’ve come to the wrong movie. Characters are as flat as the heavily foregrounded imagery, which makes everything onscreen pop but lacks contextual depth.
The heavy foregrounding is also in keeping with the two-dimensional look of a graphic novel. So, too, the ever-changing wardrobe of black-and-white ensembles worn by Lorraine (until her color-coding switches during the film’s concluding episode). No one has worn so many meaningful black-and-white outfits since Kerry Washington and Shonda Rhimes’ Olivia Pope in Scandal. The style suits the character of Lorraine, who seems to exist on nothing but Stoli on ice and cigarettes. Atomic Blonde is ultimately as distilled and transparent as Lorraine’s signature drink, but its remaining ingredients still manage to pack quite a punch.