Atomic Blonde (2017) / Thriller-Action
MPAA Rated: R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, James Faulkner, Roland Moller, Bill Skarsgard
Director: David Leitch
Screenplay: Kurt Johnstad (based on the comic, "The Coldest City", by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart)
Review published August 13, 2017
Set in Berlin in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we find an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton (Theron, The Fate of the Furious) on a mission to try to get a much sought after highly classified list of spies working for Western agencies around the world, kept hidden within the case of a luxury watch, in order to prevent it from going to the KGB. Operating in flashbacks as the bruised and fatigued agent divulges the details of her botched mission to her immediate superior (Jones, Morgan), as well as to a bigwig in the CIA (Goodman, Patriots Day), we learn of her covert mission to acquire the list, initially assigned to work with the chief operator in Berlin, David Percival (McAvoy, Split). In the meantime, they must contend with dangerous Soviet operatives, the East German military, Stasi officers, and an unknown double agent working both sides of the Wall.
Loosely based on the graphic novel, "The Coldest City", by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller genre exploration within the Cold War environment, particularly exploiting the music and attitudes of the 1980s for much of its aesthetic punch. While a nostalgia trip in many regards, the action is certainly more modern in approach, with lots of long, seeming uninterrupted takes (a fantastic job hiding the edits) featuring lots of well-choreographed sequences that will remind some of recent James Bond, the Bourne films, and John Wick (which also is co-directed by veteran stunt coordinator Leitch).
Charlize Theron continues to impress as an action star, making a splash as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and providing much more punch, literally, as another badass that can't be bested by all of the male thugs around her who aren't half as skilled or as smart. She commands a watch in this film just for her performance alone. McAvoy is always energetic and charismatic, in a role in which he wavers from being perceived as friend or foe, which is always what spies in this film seem to wonder, whether they are doing good works, or evil, through the success of their mission. Toby Jones and John Goodman merely provide recognizable faces, and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) gets some screen time as a woman with eyes for Lorraine who just might be overwhelmed by Cold War environment going on in the heart of Berlin.
The mostly synth-pop soundtrack is an asset to be sure, though some of the songs are a bit overplayed. One notable nugget is David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", which was faded into obscurity before Quentin Tarantino pulled it out in a new context for Inglorious Basterds, where it will likely be associated every bit as much and more for its soundtrack.
The plot, while more than a bit confounding at times, does offer some takes on the spy game, especially on whether those who participate in it are actually making the world a better or safer place, or if they are merely perpetuating an escalating series of evil acts merely because the other side, whatever that may mean, will do it first. Also, as the Berlin Wall is about to crumble, it calls into question the futility of continuing the Cold War as the proverbial ship is sinking, trapping everyone in the game like rats about to drown into non-existence. What does "winning" even mean any more? Regardless, no one seems to be able to walk away, especially when they no longer know what side is the right one.
Where Atomic Blonde falls short from being as good as Bond or Bourne is in constructing a riveting storyline to keep us reeled into the plot beyond standard action-thriller cliché. While the film is very much alive during the action moments, including a stunning and quite brutal fight that lasts several minutes up and down the stairs and into rooms of an apartment complex, once we get back to talking heads, the convoluted plot line and thin characterizations are far from able to sustain the momentum necessary to keep us on the edge of our seats. As such, the pulpy nature of the spy story and the exhilarating forays into smash-mouth melees feel at odd with one another, never letting the film settle into a defined groove that sustains throughout, especially as Leitch tries to marry the two competing styles into a unified whole through the climax, finale and epilogue.
Atomic Blonde has enough to offer for genre fans, who should find the lengthy and well-presented action delivers top-notch moments worth the price of admission to observe, and those who relish the throwback 1980s period-piece factor will also be impressed with the sense of style presented. However, given Leitch's persistent lifting of ideas from other well-known movies (something addressed within the film with a mention of how "sampling" in music has become so prevalent), from Michael Mann to Brian De Palma to Steven Spielberg, as well as the less-than-interesting plotline that feels like the one in Mission: Impossible (except presented in a much more confusing way), savvy cinema-goers should expect a heavier amount of lulls than they may be accustomed to in this era of simplistic action premises with dynamic video-game aesthetic. It's an exhausting movie, both in the positive and negative sense, which, like the Berlin Wall itself, is one entity separated by two adverse ideologies.
©2017 Vince Leo