Expectations are tricksy mistress. Sometimes you hear a concept, think it’ll totally work, and it turns out awesome. And other times you hear a concept so phenomenally stupid, that you’re not surprised that it turned out worse than you thought. But the really weird moment is when you go in expecting a film to be amazing, but it turns out to be just good were it not for some major glaring flaws. Whoops, spoiled my conclusion to Atomic Blonde in my introduction, but hang on reader, my thoughts are more complicated than that and won’t require much of spoilers…mostly because I don’t freaking know how to spoil something I didn’t fully grasp.
Charlize Theron headlines this shinding as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin in November 1989 right as the Cold War is about to end. Turns out a fellow operative was killed trying to recover a list of every double agent working for the Soviets, so Lorraine touches down in Berlin to retrieve it and kill Agent Satchel, a mysterious double agent that’s mucked things up for the British and was responsible for the loss of the list in the first place. She hooks up with Jame McAvoy’s Percival, the eccentric spy chief placed in Berlin to hunt down the list…oh and maybe the guy who wrote it because why the hell not? Oh and Sofia Boutella is here as a French spy who stalks Lorraine for an unknown reason, especially when Lorraine runs afoul of all the KGB operatives wanting the list too.
This is pretty much the most succinct way of trying to put the plot of Atomic Blonde into digestible words, because I assure you that watching this story play out was not as simple. It’s a convoluted spy yarn more akin to The French Connection but with way more stylistic flourishes to hold your interest. Word boxes are spray painted on to the screen while a pretty solid soundtrack of 80’s hits plays in the background, but most characters (save for McAvoy’s) mumble their lines in a super serious whisper that make it slightly more difficult to understand what’s going on because you literally can’t hear what they’re saying. The whole experience was like watching someone write their own version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy high on cocaine.
Thankfully, the screenwriter had saved a bit of blow for McAvoy, who’s here to pump the spy party up. He’s absolutely magnetic to watch in this as he chews the scenery making spycraft way more fun than it actually is. And while his character’s motivations get muddled with the whole aforementioned script problem, you don’t really care too much because he’s making you smile to hard with how ridiculous he’s acting. McAvoy’s Percival feels like the film’s one true unique asset (besides the action, which we’ll get to later), and he’s only here as the supporting role
Much more reserved is Charlize Theron’s lead as Lorraine, and when the pair share the screen together, true magic happens. It’s an entertaining dynamic to see these two sharply different characters interact, but more so when they begin lying to each other knowing full well that the other is not telling the truth already. They have a fun game of verbal tennis as they discuss their predicament, make plans and counter-plans against the other. Another thing I appreciated is that their relationship never devolves into trite betrayal of feelings, but escalates as the two one up each other in trying to foil the other’s schemes.
When Lorraine is alone, the energy isn’t as explosive and the film feels slightly more colder. This may be because the movie has to rely on an interview she is giving after the fact to superiors played by Toby Jones and John Goodman that describes the plot we are witnessing. While this could have been a helpful narrative device to make us question the motivations of certain characters as well help clarify the plot, all it does is give more opportunities for Theron to act like a bad ass in the face of flustering bureaucrats. Not that there’s anything wrong with watching Charlize Theron work mind you, the acting is on point and the dialogue is filled with solid dry wit; but the actors all end up confusing matters much more as they move the plot forward. Hell revelations made towards the end render a lot of story beats nonsensical when you start thinking about them, even as the film tries to distract you with it’s solid soundtrack and clever style.
Thankfully, Theron is on hand to ground things so you don’t get too lost in this mess of a story. While she does appear stone cold at times, she reveals her humanity a bit more as she enters a romantic tryst with the French spy played by Sofia Boutella. And while their sex scene is absolutely in favor of the male gaze, it’s their post-coital talks that brought me back into the film. Theron is obviously in her element here, but I was thoroughly pleased to see Boutella show off some acting chops as well, single-handedly redeeming herself after the disastrous The Mummy. Even without these scenes, Theron is still charismatic that you want to follow this bad ass in her mission. But of course, to be a bad ass is a much different thing than saying you’re a bad ass; but Theron shows of mind blowingly amazing stunts to show you how truly hardcore het character truly is.
Because holy shit, the action kicks twelve different flavors of ass. Coming to you from the mind of David Leitch (one half of the creative team behind the first John Wick and the director for the upcoming sequel to Deadpool), he crafts several balls to the wall shootouts and fist fights that are intense, visceral and brutal. Most importantly, you can actually see what the hell is going on, so every wound and bruise hurts all the more. The most surprising thing to me was that they’re are only four major action scenes in the whole film, and yet they’re instantly more impressionable to me than many of the other scenes of John Wick: Chapter 2. It’s not that the sequel to John Wick was bad, it just didn’t hit the highs of the first, whereas Atomic Blonde finds ways to surpass those peaks.
The second to last scene is especially notable. Dubbed the “Staircase Scene” by film festival critics, it’s a sequence that appears to be a single long take for six minutes through Hitchcock-style editing, and never lets up the impact of each punch, gun shot, and stab. The actors, moreover, appear to be exhausted that they’ve gone through such hell, even as they continue to whale on each other. And that’s before this scene bleeds out into the street, before capping off with a cleverly shot car chase across Berlin.
If the script was given another pass, I would be trumpeting to the heavens that everyone should see this movie as soon as possible. Because the action and acting certainly warrants a theater visit. However, the convoluted plot really brings down proceedings to the point I can’t in good conscience award this a higher rating. So as it stands, I’m going to have to award this a solid…