Atomic Blonde looks like one of those scrappy little action flicks that has a slow burn of success. Think of things like John Wick or Taken. Films that succeed because they’re cram full of action and their plots actually engage. It’s practically a new genre of its own, bucking the trend of high budgets and settling instead of intense fight sequences and more dead bodies than a cemetery.
Looks can be kind of deceiving, however. While Atomic Blonde definitely serves up some action, it’s an odd outlier from what you’d normally expect, and that is aside from having a female lead in a genre almost completely dominated by males. See Atomic Blonde isn’t one of these revenge/bad guys/save the day films, it’s a cold war spy thriller that someone shoved a bunch of brutal fight sequences into.
Director: David Leitch
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Atomic Blonde definitely comes from the same school as John Wick. It’s director, David Leitch, is a stuntman turned director (he’ll be helming Deadpool 2 as well) and it involves a trained killer who is better at their job than anyone else. The kind of action hero who can easily dispatch a group of henchmen quickly and easily. From there things are different. Atomic Blonde unfolds in Berlin the week before the wall comes tumbling down. As such it is cram full of double-crosses, unreliable narrators, and complex plot points. We find British secret agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being sent off to Berlin after an important list full of all of Britain’s spies falls into a corrupt Russian spy’s hands. Lorraine meets up with David Percival (James McAvoy) in Berlin to solve what’s happened. Of course, no one is what they seem, twists and turns abound, and at one point or another, you’ll be scratching your head because the plot isn’t making sense… yet.
Like any good spy thriller (and the graphic novel the film is based on) Atomic Blonde plays its cards close to its chest. And like any bad spy film, Atomic Blonde thinks its a bit more clever than it actually is. It lands somewhere in the middle of greats like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and needlessly complex messes like Mission: Impossible 2. Some of its turns make complete sense, and the film’s structure help deliver them wonderfully, while at other points the plot seems forced, with direction only confusing the mess. The best spy films leave you realizing that you could have seen it all along if you’d been paying attention, but Atomic Blonde‘s story is delivered without enough panache to do this. It all leads to a plot that feels like it has a few too many endings and not enough actual resolution.
Thankfully, almost every other aspect of the film makes up for this. We can start with the fights and the action sequences, which are savage to the point of cruelty. The very first hit in this movie is a man getting a stiletto heel to the neck (a fantastic wink to the bucking of the normal gender of action heroes), and it just gets more brutal from there on out. Every punch, hit, kick, gunshot, crash, slap, and stab feels as painful as it actually is. This isn’t James Bond where a ten-minute fist fight leaves him looking fresh as daisies. These fights land blows and they leave their combatants gasping for air, staggering around and eventually dead. A positively ferocious stairwell fight scene tumbles into an apartment then out onto a street and then into a car chase, all in “one” camera shot and over the course of 20 minutes or so. It’s probably the best action sequence I’ve seen since The Raid 2. The fights alone make this movie worthwhile.
However, Leitch actually has an eye for direction outside of fisticuffs as well. The almost hyper-sexuality of the film is handled in ways that don’t feel exploitative thanks to direction that makes everything feel a matter of fact, and while the plot is complex and often does no favors to itself he at least keeps the scenes coherent. He may lose the overall picture at times, but from scene to scene things work. There’s a wonderfully 80s feel to the way he shoots and lights everything, with a glowing neon color scheme infusing half the film, and dull greys dominating the other so as to visually represent the pull between the crime and drug-fueled east with the totalitarianism west. Leitch’s direction is a hell of a lot smarter than many are going to give him credit for even if he can’t keep the film’s story feeling clever.
And then there is Theron, who plays her role with a cool, steely iciness that you rarely see in female characters, in or out of action films. Even in brutal fight sequences that have her character bleeding and near death she seems in complete control. There’s no questioning her ability to take on even the largest, most “manly” opponent because that’s not the character and that’s not how Theron plays it. Much like her Imperator Furiosa, Theron imbues her character with an awesome that makes you think not about her sex, but about how much of a badass she is. It helps she did the majority of her own fights as well, and doesn’t look out of place doing them. It lets Leitch keep his camera still for the most part instead of cutting constantly to mask inefficiencies in her ability.
Atomic Blonde is definitely worth seeing if that’s all you’re wondering. It’s a great action movie and a decent enough spy thriller. When it falters the action is there to pick it up even if it sometimes takes a bit of time to get to said action. We may not have a new classic on our hands, but there are 20 straight minutes of action here that should go down in cinematic history.