Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, and Sofia Boutella
Ever since the first ads for Atomic Blonde, I’ve seen nothing but reactionary contempt for the film’s apparent portrayal of a women pummeling men, supposedly perpetuating a shadowy anti-man conspiracy to eradicate males from the planet Earth. In light of its perceived feminist “agenda,” it’s quite ironic that the film itself is in many ways anti-feminist in the truest sense of the idea. Although I can’t entirely blame the masses for their condemnation considering the hack job mass media has performed on true feminism over the years, but that’s a topic for another post. Atomic Blonde is simply a classic Cold War spy intrigue that just happens to have a female protagonist. While the fact that the film’s protagonist is female is inherently meaningful, it’s difficult to make a case for the film being overtly concerned with feminist politics, or really any politics for that matter. The film instead commits itself to a straightforward, run-of-the-mill, James Bond spy story with some sweet fight scenes and Queen sprinkled on top.
Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989, immediately before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After a KGB agent kills an undercover MI6 spy and steals the “List,” a piece of microfilm stored in a wristwatch naming every active field agent in the Soviet Union, top-level operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is tasked with a mission in Berlin to recover the List and assassinate a Soviet double agent named Satchel. To assist with her mission, Lorraine teams up with fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and together they attempt to track down the List. Contrary to what the trailers revealed, the film actually takes on a flashback narrative, so the majority of the film is told within the dramatic frame of an interrogation of Lorraine after the completion of her mission. As straightforward as the plot sounds I actually had to look at the Wikipedia plot description in order to know what was actually going on, and that is my main grievance with Atomic Blonde, aside from also being so unimaginative.
Most noticeably, this film has too many moments of visual frivolity. That is, when something significant happens on screen, we don’t know that it’s significant until a character vocalizes that something important did in fact happen, which makes for a emotionally confusing viewing experience. This is especially relevant to the final twist/reveal at the end of the film, where the surprise comes seemingly out of nowhere because the film does nothing prior to buttress it. It surely doesn’t help that the majority of the narrative is framed within an interrogation where it isn’t clear what the dramatic stakes are, since after all we know she doesn’t die in her mission. Director David Leitch was so hell-bent on setting up a twist at the end of the film that he forgot to fill us in, neither through characterization nor direction.
In terms of the acting, the prime standout performance in Blonde comes from prolific actor James McAvoy as David Percival, the duplicitous associate of Charlize Theron’s Lorraine. Like virtually every movie he’s ever starred in, McAvoy fully commits to the role and gives it his all. Whenever the film is drudging on for a while, McAvoy re-entrance instantly improves the scenes he’s in. McAvoy plays his character with charisma, confidence, and unpredictability, easily making him into the most interesting character in the film. In that respect, Percival is a foil to Lorraine, both dramatically and literally. Charlize Theron plays the ass-kicking heroine Lorraine Broughton as stoic, calm, and deadly, much like a female James Bond. While she does in fact kick ass as Lorraine – even learning and executing the fight choreography without a stunt double – her character isn’t very interesting to watch outside of her action scenes. Theron’s character here feels frustratingly distant as opposed to her character Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where she not only kicked major ass, but also had multiple layers of complexity that let her steal the movie. By the end of the Blonde however, Theron gets to reveal a more authentic character, but at that point the damage is already done. Nonetheless, Theron manages to materialize an at least memorable action heroine through her fight/stunt work alone. Her one-take stairwell fight scene is sure to make the best-movie-fight-scenes history books for years to come.
Atomic Blonde director David Leitch struck gold in his previous co-directorial effort for John Wick (2014), an instant classic, action B-movie with an impressively focused narrative and the some of the best action choreography in the business. In many ways Atomic Blonde and John Wick are quite similar: professional killer protagonists, authentic fight choreography, creative genre distortions. However, Blonde differs from Wick with its overdone premise and self-seriousness, and suffers for it. It’s clear that Leitch was chasing after the magic that made John Wick so satisfying; however, while the fight scenes are just as explosive as they are in John Wick and the off-kilter soundtrack is fun to hear, Leitch fails to deliver a trite narrative in a compelling enough fashion to maintain interest in a convoluted plot to backup the attractive theatrics.