With Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron takes the mantle of action heroine, smashes it into tiny fragments with her bare hands, grinds it up into a bone meal-style paste, and lovingly coats the inside of your skull with it before mounting said skull on the hood of her car.
The bad news is that David Leitch, as fantastic as he is at directing scenes of brutal, face-flaying fisticuffs, has chosen a story that gets very busy eating itself for dessert, bite by bite. This one has John Wick‘s pummeling stride, but not its crisp simplicity. The opposite, in fact. The more you think about Atomic Blonde, the more you wish you weren’t thinking about Atomic Blonde.
Based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart, and adapted for the screen by Kurt Johnstad, Atomic Blonde is a tale of divided loyalties — those loyalties being to the character as presented onscreen and the plot as written. Spies, amiright? You can only trust them to be untrustworthy, unless they’re lying about that, too.
Chiefly, there’s Ms. Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent sent to Berlin in the days just before the wall falls — i.e. during the Flock of Seagulls’ reign — to recover a valuable list of Russian agents over which another agent has been killed. This other agent, Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), was Lorraine’s secret beau and she is not pleased, no ma’am.
Unless he wasn’t? Or she is? Or whichever makes the story more exciting in the moment regardless of what makes sense?
But back to the list; it also reveals the identity of the double agent who is betraying MI6. Ergo, everyone wants it — the Brits, the Yanks, the Russians, the French, Germans on both sides of the wall, and I think Simon Le Bon, too. Lorraine is supposed to recapture this list in partnership with the semi-rogue and fully-roguish head of Berlin Station, David Percival (James McAvoy), but then she’s also supposed to trust no one.
It’s advice I’m going to take, starting with the filmmakers. For while, scene-by-scene, Atomic Blonde drops swiftly and with a vengeance, nothing much makes sense on more than one level at one time. You can retrospectively justify any given action given any piece of information the script unveils, but not all of them at once. Each shift breaks something else.
And I, for one, wish they had stuck more devotedly to simply breaking bones.
Then, all the betrayals and reveals explode in the finale and one’s head finally swells with concussive force.
Plot machinations can be good stuff, especially in a spy flick, but this gets beyond ridiculous. And before it gets ridiculous, it gets boring. It appears Leitch has missed the point of machinations; one doesn’t upend the character, one upends the situation the character is in, in order to reveal what the character has always been.
Atomic Blonde depends on a few pieces of emotional bedrock in order to build empathy for Lorraine — i.e. her secret love for Gasciogne. You might forgive the filmmakers for fracturing that foundation late in the game — without any satisfying explanation other than ‘gotcha!’ — but it’s harder to forgive the characters for retconning their own truths.
Especially if you want to make a few sequels.
For more spoiler-y level detail on all that, check out the accurate plot summary on Wikipedia and see if you can make sense of it. And then pedantically explain why I’m incorrect in the comments.
I said there was good and bad news. All that’s the bad news.
In the good column, we’ll include the soundtrack, which accurately matches the bitchin’ ’80s attire with some luftballoons and voices that carry. While songs repeat — odd considering the vast reserves of the period — the tracks will bring you back. Whether or not that works for you might depend on how often you were stuffed in a locker in 7th grade.
Also good, Charlize Theron, Eddie Marsan as the turncoat Stasi agent, and the face punching. Mostly the face punching, though.
While there are more explosively choreographed fight scenes, and many of them are a true pleasure to watch, the one that doesn’t make the trailer, in which violence takes its true toll, is clearly the best. It’s the kind of action mayhem that makes you reassess action and mayhem.
The fact that the fist disher is female and the script avoids any ‘but she’s a girl’ shit — also appreciated. Theron’s gender remains as uncommented upon as Daniel Craig’s, which is exactly as it should be, even in the ’80s.
And there you have it. Atomic Blonde looks good. It sounds good. It lands a welter of punches and leaves you reeling — which is great.
Because once you stop spinning you’re sure to say, “hang on a minute…”