Set in 1989 against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde follows Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an undercover MI6 agent sent on a high-priority mission to Berlin to recover a lost list of the Secret Intelligence Service’s double agents before it falls into the wrong hands.
Atomic Blonde is based on the British Oni Press graphic novel The Coldest City, created by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, with John Wick co-director David Leitch adapting it for the big screen. As most of us know, Leitch’s next directorial effort will be Deadpool 2 for 20th Century Fox. Going into this film, I was really looking forward to seeing what the director brought to the table on this film. He was actually uncredited as a co-director on the first John Wick and was not even involved in the sequel, so this is his first time flying solo as a feature film director. So, how did Leitch fair with his first solo directorial effort? Does Atomic Blonde instill confidence that he will be the right guy to deliver a kickass Deadpool sequel? Read on to find out. This review is spoiler-free…
First of all, I’m going to hit on one of my main issues with the film right off the bat. The first hour of this movie is incredibly slow. There are a few action beats here and there in the first two acts just to keep things somewhat interesting, but aside from those brief sequences, for the most part, it’s just a lot of people sitting around, talking about the mission in both future and past tense (as the film’s story is being told from Lorraine’s perspective as she is reporting back to her superiors at MI6), and tons and tons of unnecessary exposition. After a while, all of this just got to be a little too boring and it really drags the film down.
Thankfully, however, things really start to pick up at the end of the third act with an incredible extended fight sequence that is hands down the highlight of the entire film. It’s one of those long “all in one take” runner sequences with “no cuts” that have become increasingly popular in films and television series these days (like in Daredevil, True Detective or Oldboy) and can be really cool when executed properly. Of course, this one is obviously not one long take, as you can clearly spot the hidden edits as they cut to footage of Theron’s stunt double, but the sequence is still impressive nonetheless. The action is just so relentless and brutal that the whole scene would have worked even if it didn’t implement the one-take approach. This sequence was also pretty comical, in a good way, as you just can’t believe how many times the bad guys would just keep getting back up again and subject themselves to even more punishment at Theron’s hands.
This particular fight scene is a really long one too, which was actually another reason it was very reminiscent of that first hallway scene in Daredevil Season 1 for me, as both Theron’s character and all of her aggressors similarly got more winded and beaten down as the fight progressed. My favorite moment in this whole sequence, and possibly even in Atomic Blonde as a whole, is just a small thing, but at one point, she goes to stand back up after being knocked down and her legs go wobbly as she stumbles backwards into the doors behind her and falls back to the ground before pulling herself up and fighting on, because if she doesn’t, it’s her life that hangs in the balance. I liked this moment because it just felt so real. I wasn’t sure if it was scripted or a completely authentic fumble due to the actress’ sheer exhaustion, but either way, it worked. There were a handful of other really great fight scenes, shootouts and other awesome action sequences throughout the film as well, and I won’t really go into those much here, but there’s a lot of great action. This one, though, was the clear standout, shining a spotlight at all the best things this film had to offer.
One of Atomic Blonde‘s other strengths is definitely its cast. Charlize Theron is fantastic. She is a legitimate badass in this role, both in her performance and presence, as well as the physicality of the role. She put in a ton of work, with all the training and choreography, and it definitely shows. Most of the time, Theron is on camera, doing a lot of the fighting herself. She doesn’t rely as much on doubles as most actors or actresses might, aside from only a few instances, like the aforementioned edits in the one-take sequence. After Atomic Blonde and the outstanding Mad Max: Fury Road, it really makes me wonder why Hollywood isn’t putting out two or three Charlize Theron action movies a year. She could (and totally should) be the female Liam Neeson. We can all just go the the theater and find out who pissed Charlize Theron off this time.
James McAvoy is also excellent, as he always is, as David Percival, another undercover operative whom Lorraine is paired up with. His character was actually pretty multi-faceted and he pulled every aspect of his character off splendidly. I also liked Eddie Marsan as the mission’s lynchpin, the informant codenamed “Spyglass.” I did, however, spend much of the early part of the film trying to rack my brain to come up with where I knew the guy from (Ray Donovan, that’s it!), which was mostly just a way to pass the time during the slog that was the first hour or so of the film’s runtime. This had no real negative impact of the actor’s performance, though. I thought he was great and he was also a really fun part of the aforementioned one-take fight scene.
I would consider myself a fan of Sofia Boutella, who plays French spy Delphine Lasalle. I thought she was great in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond, and I even thought she did an interesting turn in The Mummy, a film I apparently enjoyed a lot more than most people. Sadly, however, I found her role in Atomic Blonde to be perhaps her least interesting one to date, through no fault of her own, because I thought she did with it all that she could. I know they can’t all be cool aliens or sword-legged bodyguards, but it seemed she was just written as a really weak character and I think Boutella can do better.
Toby Jones (of Captain America: The First Avenger fame) was fine as Lorraine’s superior at MI6, Eric Gray — he just wasn’t given much to do, and the same can be said for James Faulkner (who some might recognize as Randyll Tarly from Game of Thrones), who pretty much just had to be creepy and lurk in the shadows. Similarly, Bill Skarsgård wasn’t given all that much to do either. Aside from the Netflix series Hemlock Grove, which I hated, I haven’t seen much of his work, but he is playing Pennywise in the upcoming It remake, so I wanted to get a better idea of what this guy can do. This wasn’t the proper showcase for him, though, but he did a decent enough job with what he was given.
Another one of this film’s greatest sins is that it pretty much wasted the talents of John Goodman, who is easily one of my all-time favorite actors. Goodman plays American CIA representative Emmett Kurzfield, who just gets to sit there in a briefing room for almost the entire movie and listen to Lorraine explain how the mission went down. He does get one moment that kind of justifies everything, though, and it also happens to feature what I considered to be one of the funniest lines in the whole movie.
For me, Atomic Blonde‘s one big hindrance was its script, written by 3oo screenwriter Kurt Johnstad. I have never read the original comic, The Coldest City, so I can’t judge this film based on how faithful this adaptation is, but my overall problem with the story is that it just wasn’t all that original or interesting. Most of the spy genre elements on display in the film have been used a million times over in previous espionage-related films. There are also a few plot points that are just dropped halfway through the film, never to be seen or heard from again. Theron’s character has a tiny bit of backstory, a former romantic interest that is set up early on in the film, and it never has any real influence on the events of the story or even any emotional impact on the character past the first act of the movie.
While the script was not very strong, other aspects of Atomic Blonde definitely worked overtime to make up for its lack of creativity in the story department. David Leitch’s stylistic direction certainly made for an interesting-looking film on a visual level, but it was his years of working in the stunt world that makes him such a great director for action movies such as this. The fight scenes are so expertly choreographed and filmed in a clean, concise way that makes it really easy to follow, a trait that most big budget action films don’t seem to find too important these days, sadly. And this was not just in the one-take sequence, but in all of the fight scenes. I mentioned it before, but the decision to have Theron do most of her own fighting on camera made it all feel so much more real.
Other highlights of the film include the really cool, dynamic lighting, some excellent production design, an awesome late-80s era soundtrack and one thing that definitely stuck out quite a bit to me was the make-up. When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she is looking pretty damn rough with the toll the events of the film have taken on her body and the Special FX makeup here was on point.
Overall, I really ended up liking Atomic Blonde, despite its flaws. While the story is bland and drags way too much at times, it is really is Leitch’s direction, the incredible action and the performances from a few key members of the cast — Theron and McAvoy, especially — that make it all worthwhile. Really, all of the actors were great, and were they given a stronger script, I think most of them would have been even better. And sure, the first hour is tough to get through, but once you’re over that hump, the film does not let up and the action keeps things moving from there on. I absolutely cannot wait to see what kind of action Leitch can give us with a character like the Merc with a Mouth in Deadpool 2.
Atomic Blonde has come about at a perfect time in our post-Wonder Woman world, as thousands of fans the world over just want to see more strong women represented on the big screen. As Charlize Theron said at San Diego Comic Con 2017 this past weekend, if you want to see more female-driven action movies like this and Wonder Woman, go see these movies. I certainly wanna see more big-budget female-driven action films like this, and definitely more starring Theron, so I defintiely suggest checking out Atomic Blonde.