Updated: Feb 4, 2020
Atomic Blonde, a thriller starring Charlize Theron as a spy in cold-war era Berlin, is a violent, fast-paced, entertaining action movie. Even though it takes place in the world of British secret agents, this is one spy film that could not be mistaken for a Bond movie. Bond movies are light and fun with witty banter and megalomaniacal villains. Atomic Blonde (108 minutes before the end credits) is light on banter, but has brutally realistic fight scenes that have been very well-choreographed. The villains are not megalomaniacal; they are pragmatic and all about self-preservation. Whereas Bond usually seems to be having fun, no one in this film is enjoying themselves. What they do is confusing, dangerous and thankless work. A good day is one where they live to keep secrets about it.
I’ll start with the bad aspects of the film before I get to all the things I liked about it. The thing working against Atomic Blonde the most is its screenplay. The story itself is needlessly complicated and the interactions between the characters are missing a spark that is necessary to make the audience really care about the outcome. The twists in the final act should come off as cool, but instead could leave viewers confused as to who did what to whom. I think I know what was happening in the story, but I’m not sure I could pass a test on it. The film is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart). It sounds like the film’s story is faithful to that of its source material. Perhaps it is easier to follow on the page than it is on the screen.
Now on to the positives. The best thing the film has going for it is the lead performance by Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton. In Mad Max: Fury Road she showed that she can play a tough-as-nails action heroine. In Atomic Blonde she goes one step farther. Theron has the entire movie on her shoulders and delivers a very strong performance that would have elevated the movie even higher if the character motivations were easier to understand. As it is, she is surprisingly sympathetic as a woman who trusts no one as she struggles to figure out how to complete her mission.
Unfortunately, the other performances are hindered by the story’s lack of clarity. Even James McAvoy (the younger Professor X in the more recent X-Men films), giving a mad-dog performance as an unpredictable fellow operative, fails to make a strong impression. He is solid (as are John Goodman as a CIA agent, Sofia Boutella as a mysterious Frenchwoman and Eddie Marsan as the target of Broughton’s mission), but Theron is the only one able to really make an impact.
Theron also convincingly battles men much larger than her in several brutally realistic fight scenes, many of which she performed in herself. There is one in particular, a battle in a stairwell toward the end of the film, that will be talked about among action movie aficionados for years to come. The fight choreography does a great job of adding to the sense of desperation that the characters populating this dangerous world consistently give off. Director David Leitch (who directed a few scenes for 2014’s John Wick) has worked as a stuntman and a stunt coordinator and his skills are put to good use here. Additionally, the lack of edits make the fights more realistic and less disorienting. A lot of recent action scenes are full of quick cuts that make it difficult to follow the action. That is not the case here. Editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (who also worked on John Wick) does very subtle work in these sequences, allowing the fight choreography to speak for itself.
The other really cool thing about Atomic Blonde is its soundtrack full of 80s hits. The music fits the film’s version of 1989 Berlin perfectly and doesn’t come off entirely as nostalgia because the songs are used to augment the action instead of just being used to sell a soundtrack (though they will probably do that as well).
Overall, the film is a little disappointing. It was never able to build enough momentum to become the fun spy thriller it was probably intended to be. However, the fight scenes are great and Charlize Theron gives a strong lead performance. So, as an action movie, Atomic Blonde is still pretty successful. There are better films playing in theaters right now, but for pure visceral action, you currently won’t find anything better than Atomic Blonde.
3 ½ out of 5
Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton
James McAvoy as David Percival
John Goodman as Emmett Kurzfeld
Sofia Boutella as Delphine Lasalle
Eddie Marsan as Spyglass
Toby Jones as Eric Gray
Directed by David Leitch
Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad