Sometimes a film comes along that teases you with great vision but fails to deliver the way you hoped. For me, Atomic Blonde was just such a film.
But let’s be fair. I admit I’ve never read the source material. I’m unfamiliar with the graphic novel, The Coldest City, on which the film is based but the opening credits are highly stylized in a spray-paint-graffiti motif that pay ample homage to its roots. The cold war period piece boasts an 80’s soundtrack to fit, and though its delivered with forced adrenaline bombast, the overall tempo of the film doesn’t keep up. Great music is major plus for any film but it can’t carry it alone.
The cast of Atomic Blonde is stellar to say the least, and Charlize Theron is fully exploited for her beauty and action talent. After seeing her in Aeon Flux, I was hyped to see her in another action role, especially one that flaunted the image of a female James Bond, but it failed to deliver.
Unfortunately, the “keep you guessing” spy thriller spreads thin on suspense, and the gritty agent played by James McAvoy is suspect from the very start. The facial close-up of someone in sunglasses, lighting and smoking a cigarette works as a comic book frame, but here it is beaten to death with numbing repetition. It takes more than shades and smoke to make someone appear tough or sexy.
James Bond is forever exploited for wearing dashing clothes or baring abs and pecs, so gratuitous shots of Theron in lingerie, dazzling gowns, and fashion leather isn’t out of character. One must also give director David Leitch credit for graceful but deadly action sequences of hand-to-hand combat. His background as a stuntman is evident, and his work on John Wick showcased intense firearm activity, but here, Theron uses everything handy from stiletto heels to garden hoses to dispense with all comers in brutal, bloody fashion. The scenes are beautifully choreographed and shot, delivering high spots of intense action to an otherwise plodding film pace.
Many stories are told in non-linear fashion, and Atomic Blonde uses an agent debriefing, with endless shots of Theron smoking as she relates events to her superiors. However, the story chunks are not in order and one must pay close attention to not lose track. That’s not a bad thing if they were more intriguing as opposed to waiting through scenes for the next bit of info to drop.
The intensity of crime and the dark flavor of Berlin still divided by the wall are well depicted, and one has to marvel that such a massive display of oppression could ever last, yet it remains a bloody chapter of European history. In the shadow of that wall, John Goodman fills the role of the weary CIA officer trying to out a double agent. Toby Jones and James Faulkner round out the higher ranks of the British MI6, and are about as close as the film gets to Bond in any fashion.
Maybe Atomic Blonde is a faithful re-creation of The Coldest City, and for those looking for that brought to life, it may well be a successful rendering. If high intensity action and sexy shots of the lead character are your bag of popcorn, then this could be a worthwhile two-hour romp. For me, it takes more than those few things to keep me on the hook.
Atomic Blonde does a few things very well, but lacks the glue to stick it all together in the way a good spy thriller deserves.
T. August Green