May 2024

Atomic Blonde (2017)

DIRECTOR: David Leitch

CAST: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger, Bill Skarsgard, Roland Moller


Atomic Blonde plays out like a blend of the convoluted, labyrinthine Cold War intrigue of a John Le Carre novel with the kinetic action of a Jason Bourne movie, but the level of style and panache director David Leitch brings to the material, and the entertainment value of Charlize Theron kicking ass and looking stylish while doing it can’t quite make up for a murky, muddled plotline that’s difficult to follow.

Most of the action unfolds in flashback, with MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) sitting in an uneasy debriefing explaining her latest mission and actions to her MI6 bosses “C” (James Faulkner)—as opposed to “M”—his deputy Eric Gray (Toby Jones), and visiting CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).  With periodic interruptions as they question her about some part or another, we flashback to ten days earlier.  It’s 1989 Berlin, and the wall that has divided East and West for thirty years is crumbling, sparking riots and celebrations in the streets and leaving the Communist Soviet-allied East German government teetering on the brink of collapse.  Lorraine arrives in a town that’s a powder keg set to blow to retrieve a list of undercover agents that a defecting East German secret police official (Eddie Marsan) is trying to smuggle to the West, making him and the list hot commodities that the Soviets, MI6, French Intelligence, and the CIA are all trying to get their hands on, with the secondary objective of exposing a traitor in British Intelligence.  But there’s hiccups and plenty of twists and turns along the way.  Lorraine’s cover is blown almost immediately, leaving her barely off the plane before she’s suviving a KGB assassination attempt.  A British agent (and Lorraine’s ex-lover) gets the list, but is then killed by a KGB hitman.  But instead of delivering it to his masters, the hitman goes rogue and offers it for sale to the highest bidder, leaving Lorraine trying to get to him first. She’s being followed and photographed by a mysterious woman (Sofia Boutella).  And she has to partner up with boozy Berlin-stationed British agent David Percival (James McAvoy), who may or may not be trustworthy.

Atomic Blonde is adapted from the graphic novel series “The Coldest City”, and it has a vaguely graphic novel/comic book aesthetic.  David Leitch in his first solo directorial credit takes advantage of the 1980s setting of Berlin at the time of the collapse of the wall, a vibrant, volatile sea of neon lights and streets filled with crowds alternately rioting or partying, pumping up the action with a busy soundtrack of 1980s pop hits.  He also handles the action with a kinetic kick; the much-touted hand-to-hand fight scenes are few and far between, but there’s a couple memorable episodes, including Lorraine singlehandedly thrashing a squad of cops in an apartment, and later a nicely brutal stairway fight with a few henchmen that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jason Bourne movie.  There’s also a Charlize Theron/Sofia Boutella lesbian sex scene (not particularly graphic but steamy enough for those who are into this sort of thing), and a couple car chases resulting in brutal fender benders.

Alas, the muddled murkiness of the convoluted intrigue can strain the concentration of some viewers in between things being enlivened by Charlize Theron beating the crap out of henchmen or getting it on with Sofia Boutella.  This is standard issue spy stuff; the McGuffin of a list of undercover agents was also a plot device in the Bond installment Skyfall, and there’s the usual tropes of the partner who may or may not be trustworthy, a side distraction to provide a little sex who might as well be a Bond girl (and fares about as well as some of Bond’s conquests who get mixed up in his world), enigmatic superiors, mysterious conversations in dark alleyways, betrayals and twists and turns and characters turning out to be double or triple agents.  Some viewers will surely eat this up, but Atomic Blonde threatens to get more convoluted than necessary.  The revelation of the traitor in MI6’s midst isn’t particularly surprising, and one could argue Lorraine is almost too cool; she looks great stalking around and kicking ass, but there’s not that much to her besides some cliched tough talk about the bad-ass veteran agent who’s emotionally detached because feelings get you killed.

With Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron seems to have set out to out-badass herself; Lorraine Broughton kicks even more ass than Mad Max: Fury Roads Imperator Furiosa, and gets to look far more stylish while doing it, strutting around in long coats, red stilettos which she uses as more than fashion accessories on one occasion, and giving and taking as much as Matt Damon’s Bourne or Daniel Craig’s Bond in brutal fight scenes where she gets every bit as battered and bruised as any male action hero, her banged-up body on full display when she submerges naked into an ice bath.  The only part of this role that Theron doesn’t seem fully committed to is her British accent, which seems a little half-hearted and inconsistent, but that’s not the part most viewers are going to be focused on.  James McAvoy is clearly enjoying himself as he sinks his teeth into the juicy character of Percival, a boozy womanizing hedonist with ambiguous motives, while Sofia Boutella has about as thankless of a role as your average Bond girl.  No one else gets much to do; James Faulkner, Toby Jones, and John Goodman sit in a room listening to Theron recount her story and occasionally injecting a comment here and there, and there are other small roles for Eddie Marsan as our walking McGuffin, Til Schweiger and Bill Skarsgard as underground contacts, and Roland Moller as our more-or-less “big bad” KGB honcho, though he doesn’t have much screentime.

David Leitch imbues Atomic Blonde with a glitzy, energetic, kinetic veneer, but this doesn’t fully enliven a murky, muddled mash-up of John Le Carre that feels like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy souped up with a dash of gender-switched Jason Bourne/James Bond.  Some viewers will enjoy, but it feels like two movies mashed into one that might have been better if it’d committed fully in one direction.