REVIEW: ‘Atomic Blonde’ is a neon-lit thermonuclear warhead, with a few frayed wires

Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in  Atomic Blonde , directed by David Leitch.

Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in Atomic Blonde, directed by David Leitch.

A finely engineered watch figures prominently in the plot of Atomic Blonde. It’s loaded with some secret information that everyone in the movie wants to get their hands on. It’s tracked by operatives of MI6, the CIA, the KGB and the French DGSE. Whoever has the watch controls the fates of dozens, if not hundreds of spies in Cold War Europe. As the people of East and West Berlin take the final crucial steps towards reunification, a shadowy battle plays out over a single deadly timepiece.

Like the watch, the film is a collection of beautiful components. The craftsmanship behind every part is on full display: bold, fluorescent cinematography, calibrated performances, and a vicious one-take action scene for the ages. There’s an important flaw, though: Atomic Blonde puts all of this powerful material on display, but can’t seem to put it together correctly. It’s as though the pieces are grinding against each other, resetting the clock when the film should be ticking forward and building tension.

David Leitch’s movie is by no means a lost cause, but it is an occasionally frustrating one. Any good espionage film will keep you guessing about certain details until the end. But more than once in Atomic Blonde, I had to rack my brain to keep track of basic things like character motivations or newly-revealed evidence. The information is all there, but the film isn’t scrambling it to challenge the heroine or the audience, or even to make a point about the moral quicksand of the spy game. It’s just a little too eager to show off.

James McAvoy as the British agent known as Percival. 

James McAvoy as the British agent known as Percival. 

Some of the most significant structural problems come from flash-forward segments set in an MI6 interrogation room, as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is debriefed after her mission. These chunks end up being a crutch for Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, chances to re-explain bits of plot. Unfortunately, the scenes just interrupt the flow of the film, negating the emotional buildup of the core story. Similarly, it takes far too long for the film to tell us how Broughton is planning to get the upper hand – the first 60 minutes mostly feature characters moving in and out of various locations, without a through-line of what they’re trying to accomplish.

Even so, one person comes out of the film flying above all the others – Charlize Theron. If you weren’t ready to hand her a trophy for Best Working Action Star after Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde will settle that for you. As Broughton, Theron appears in almost every scene, and commands every one. It’s unclear how Broughton summons the drive to crunch her way through every opponent, and the film doesn’t care. We’re only allowed one or two brief glimpses into her inner life, but thanks to Theron’s performance (and Leitch’s lingering shots on his star’s eyes), we know there’s something coiled in there.

Facing off with Theron is a well-chosen cast of secondary players – Sofia Boutella as a confident but naïve French intelligence officer, James McAvoy as a venal MI6 station chief, and John Goodman and Toby Jones as veteran spooks left to clean up the mess Broughton leaves behind. Leitch has wisely picked actors with equal amounts of experience as heroes and villains, reinforcing the idea that no one in the film is above reproach.

John Goodman as CIA officer Emmett Kurzfeld.

John Goodman as CIA officer Emmett Kurzfeld.

Leitch’s choice of location and time period provides all sorts of opportunities to enhance the mood. Some people may describe Broughton as a female 007, but Atomic Blonde isn’t a Bond film. Broughton doesn’t slide through luxe casinos or lounge on sun-dappled yachts; she hikes up her collar and disappears into the grimy concrete underbelly of Berlin. She rubs shoulders with punk rockers and sucks down cigarette smoke in a hotel room that looks like the showroom of a neon lighting manufacturer. These visuals are at once gorgeous and skin-crawling – it’s a world that invites you to explore it only for a few hours, or risk losing your mind.

Atomic Blonde may not deliver on everything it promises, and you may find yourself wishing it was more satisfying. But this is one of those rare occasions when I really want to see a sequel emerge, if only to see how the sharp bite of this premise would feel in other global destinations. Does Lorraine have more missions in her? From the way those bruises heal, one would think so.

Atomic Blonde gets three stars out of four.


Stray thoughts

  • Action-movie buffs need to see this film for the one-take fight scene alone; it’s an example of film technique that’s all too rare in Hollywood pictures.
  • The constant news broadcasts about the Berlin Wall were a minor, but contributing factor to the structural problems – a single one to set things up would have been enough.
  • It’s suggested that Percival started out as a slick, Bond-like agent – it would be cool to see a short on the Blu-ray that shows how his downfall started.