Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones
Former stuntman David Leitch’s first solo directorial outing is somewhat of a mixed bag. Set in November 1989, the just-at-the-end-of-the-cold-war spy thriller takes place against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin wall.
The opening scene sees a mustachioed man being chased through Berlin’s snowy graffiti-festooned backstreets (complete with posters of smiley faces and CND symbols) to a soundtrack of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ – “IT’S 1989!” in case you missed the opening credits. Eventually we see him being run over twice and then shot, in a less than glamourous KGB hit. So the tone is set for ‘Atomic Blonde’. Or at least for part of the film, because tonally, it’s all over the shop.
Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent, who is sent to Berlin to retrieve a list of assets, uncover a double agent and perhaps bring some justice for the murder of our mustachioed man, her former lover. So far, so John Le Carre. Aiding Broughton on her mission is David Percival (the ever charismatic James McAvoy on best ‘Filth’ form), who may or may not be the double agent, but he definitely has ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli on his book shelf, *wink to camera*.
What follows for the next hundred minutes is largely nonsense. Some very stylish nonsense, then some confusing nonsense, with a few moments of goddamn brilliance just to confuse matters.
The first half hour is largely a neon-lit music video, with lingering shots of Theron letting smoke spill from her perfect pout, while the plot is occasionally alluded to in heavy-handed globs of dialogue, all the while glorious ‘80’s music plays on a constant “Jeez, wasn’t ‘89 a vintage year for music?” loop. It looks beautiful, sounds beautiful and being a shallow short of person, I would probably have enjoyed it if it continued in the same vein.
However the narrative meanders about for so long while Theron smokes in various Berlin bars and restaurants, that you forget why she’s out there. We start to wonder where has McAvoy gone? Who is this French woman? Who is Satchel? Do we even care anymore? ‘Atomic Blonde’s’ questions don’t arise as a result of a clever plot however, but just sheer confusion.
Thankfully the latter half of the film sees a SUPERB fight scene, all filmed in one take, which shows off not only Theron’s action chops, but also David Leich’s potential as a director. The music stops, the neon is nowhere to be seen and things get brutal, bloody and far more interesting than the previous 60+ minutes. THAT’S the film I really would have wanted to see. Dispense with the smoke-ringed glamour and get Theron really kicking ass.
Theron is magnetic as Broughton, (although Lorraine is not a super sexy spy name, let’s face it), all effortless physicality and sideways glances. Her wardrobe throughout made me want to burn all my clothes on my return home, as she is stylish as hell and I am fully subscribed to the ‘Atomic Blonde’ autumn/winter collection. However, she is also pretty one dimensional. A 40+ year old woman playing a kickass, bisexual, cold war era spy should be exciting and lead to a different feel to the spy genre, but somehow that is all fairly cosmetic. We never really engage with Broughton as a character, she is all veneer and could just as well be Jason Bourne in Louboutins.
While ‘Atomic Blonde’ is a confused affair, there are enough visual thrills to make up for the uneven plot, with some terrific performances managing to raise it to the status of entertaining diversion rather than all out car-wreck.