Distributor: Focus Features
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad (based on graphic novel by Antony Johnston)
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, John Goodman
Genre: Action, Thriller
Atomic Blonde makes a strong impression early on; it crackles with style and every actor delivers their A-game. But by the end of a bloated two-hour runtime, the movie has worn out its welcome and revealed that it has nothing to say, and no clever way to say it.
Violence/Scary Images: People are shown being beaten to death, shot to death, drowned, and run over with cars.
Language/Crude Humor: Fairly frequent use of the F-word and equivalents, and some jokes about genitals.
Sexual Content: Theron is shown naked several times, several characters are shown undressed to their underwear, and there is a fairly explicit lesbian sex scene.
Drug/Alcohol References: Most of the characters are hard drinkers and smokers.
Positive Content: Real intimacy and trust can exist even between damaged and paranoid people.
Cinematography is the art of the camera: what it sees, when, and how. Direction is the unified total of cinematography. Editing: what the audience sees and how it fits together. This distinction is important because Atomic Blonde has lovely cinematography and awful direction.
The movie opens with a long, silent scene of superspy Lorraine Broughton (Theron) taking an ice bath. She is bloodied and bruised. Theron is nude for the scene but emanates a set of invisible armor – as though nothing can reach her anymore. Theron doesn’t need dialogue to communicate regret, pain, emotional fatigue, and a person living after they’ve reached their edge. I rode the cinematography of that first scene for about half the movie, buoyed by actors projecting amazing depth despite a rather clunky script. Then a terrible suspicion rose up in my mind: does this movie have any idea what it’s doing?
I was able to ignore that little voice because the action scenes were amazing: clear, fluid, brutal, and punishing for every character involved. And so I floated past the fact that extremely obvious things were being explained to me and that the story struggled to think of smart spy things for our smart spies to do.
The suspicion became unavoidable when rookie French spy Delphine Lasalle (Boutella) did something stupid, and then did a series of further stupid things, and an entirely predictable consequence happened. I honestly wondered if the movie were trying to depict a death wish. No, this is meant to be the tragic loss that defines the main character – the Vesper to Theron’s Bond. Yet come the end of the movie there is no hint or mention of this loss. The brutal loss of Lasalle is forgotten. And because it is forgotten, a scene of stupid and brutal violence seems to exist for no reason. Broughton simply ends the movie victorious, satisfied, returning home. A mildly clever twist that could have reshaped how we saw our hero is waved away with a hasty explanation. No, there’s no moral ambiguity here.
The “reveals” at the end of the movie didn’t work for two reasons: one, it makes several actions Broughton takes earlier in the movie simply illogical; and two, it introduces motivations for her that are entirely separate to everything we’ve seen in the movie. A reveal has to connect with what came before and place the past in a new context. But the ending shows us a version of Broughton that is antithetical to the movie so far. Forget “show don’t tell;” this is “show one thing for ninety minutes, and then tell something completely different.”
The soundtrack is a laundry list of great songs used to no particular effect, except to jump up and down squealing “The 80s! The 80s!” The movie spends a lot of time contrasting the hope of the Wall coming down with the round of grubby violence and deceit happening throughout the movie.
But the grubbiness on display is the movie’s own. The movie’s emphasis on mystery extends to such questions as “Why is our hero doing something really dumb?” Because there is rarely a character or thematic reason for anything to happen, only raw contrivance remains. People are beaten and threatened and killed because…just because. At a certain point, it began to feel like I was watching the director’s fetishes come to life – or worse, what the director imagined the audience wanted.
Atomic Blonde is also rather bloated, with a compact plot stretched to almost two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 had a similar problem but did a much better job of maintaining energy (mainly through the use of music). Guardians also had a grasp of character and humor, whereas Atomic Blonde‘s wordplay reads like James Bond fan fiction written after two fingers of vodka.
None of this is an acting problem. Every actor in this movie is performing so well they’re wasted on this movie. Theron almost holds things together, McAvoy is note-perfect as the mock-unhinged agent actually coming unhinged, and Boutella’s screen presence is wasted on a role that doesn’t get to do anything. Great performances are locked inside a plot that prevents them from saying anything about loss, or loyalty, or the nature of espionage.
If you want a stylish retro spy movie, try The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the first Mission Impossible. If you want a female-led action movie, try Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road or Gina Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. But I wouldn’t recommend this one.
The Bottom Line