Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Bill Skarsgård, Daniel Bernhardt, Sam Hargrave, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Lili Gesler
Running Time: 115 min.
By Kyle Warner
With a bit of fancy editing and a dash of special effects, movies can make just about anyone into an action hero these days. But every once in a while, a star and a director decide they want to do more than trick you; they want to convince you. All the right things gotta come together for this to happen. The right star, who must be motivated to push themselves physically. And the right director, who knows how to use what their star can do without appearing to hide what they can’t. That duo—plus a hundred other necessary elements—is a rare thing in Hollywood, where things are made fast and with as little risk as possible. But Charlize Theron is a rare type of actress. And her heroine in Atomic Blonde is precisely the sort of role that best shows off her many talents.
Training under director David Leitch’s 87eleven ‘action design’ studio, Theron took the bruises and spent the necessary time to make the punches look real before filming commenced. When she fights off a group of guys with little more than a yellow hose, I was in tune with the action, even audibly expressing my shock when certain spectacular moves were performed. It’s one of the most convincing transformations from attractive Hollywood star to absolute badass I’ve seen.
In Atomic Blonde, Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy who’s seen some of the worst of the Cold War. She’s a tough, no-nonsense operative who’s just as willing to use sex appeal as she is a clenched fist of keys to best her opponents. We first see her naked in a tub of ice, covered in bruises. She then reports to her superiors, the British spy played by Toby Jones (Captain America) and the CIA man played by John Goodman (Kong: Skull Island), who grill her on her recent operation in East Berlin leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Another MI6 agent (a man Lorraine is reluctant to admit she was close to) was killed while trying to escape Berlin with microfilm. Lorraine’s mission was to retrieve the microfilm, all the while keeping an eye out for the notorious but faceless traitor known as Satchel.
Lorraine was made as soon as she stepped off the plane. The KGB know her name, they know her contacts, and they knew she was coming. She fights them off—using her high heel shoes—and is picked up by a fellow British spy, David Percival (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class). From here, she gets the lay of the land and meets with various contacts including the intel salesman (Til Schweiger, Inglourious Basterds), the innocent French woman (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman), the Soviet turncoat (Eddie Marsan, Ray Donovan), and the document forger (Bill Skarsgård, It).
And from there it just sort of… meanders for a bit. There’s not much of a sense of hurry in Lorraine’s mission. The villains are the Russians and they’re everywhere, but they’re a vague threat that exists somewhere in the shadows and only appear when an action sequence is needed. The specter of the traitor known as Satchel isn’t introduced until about Act 2, which seems a little late. As an action movie, Atomic Blonde can be pretty spectacular, but it wants to be a Cold War thriller, too, and that’s where it doesn’t always deliver.
But if you’re coming for action, you should leave the theatre pretty happy. There’s a continuous shot action sequence set primarily in a stairway that rivals the likes of Oldboy and Children of Men. I say ‘continuous shot’ and not ‘single shot’ because I’m sure there are some cuts in there, but they’re all well disguised. It’s an amazing sequence. Another awesome scene has Charlize Theron’s blonde Brit face off against Daniel Bernhardt’s blonde Russian in a movie theatre while Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker plays in the background. Very cool.
The film has a very particular look and feel, some of which feels directly influenced by director David Leitch’s co-director gig, John Wick. Backgrounds covered in spray paint, stars lit by neon, and all set to the tune of 80’s rock, it’s a most peculiar Cold War actioner. But it works. Leitch proves that Wick co-director and fellow former stuntman Chad Stahelski isn’t the only one who can succeed when going it alone. The film suffers pacing issues and the story lacks originality, but Leitch’s visual style and hard-hitting action are reasons to be excited for his future films to come.
No matter how good anyone else is, they are afterthoughts by comparison to Charlize Theron. This is a great character, wonderfully played by an actress willing to go the edge for her art. It’s almost a shame that Theron and Lorraine didn’t find each other years ago, because I can imagine endless sequels with her character. What I also liked is that she was not some invincible heroine. In one extended fight, Lorraine walks off looking to be in worse shape than the men she defeated. Her special skill is that she just doesn’t quit.
It’s just too bad that the film’s story didn’t wow me the same way that its main character did. Atomic Blonde is the battle of some first-rate John Wick-inspired action trapped in a second-rate John le Carré-inspired spy thriller. It’s a mildly disappointing film because when it’s working, it’s really working. Just the same, it’s definitely worth seeing, for Theron if nothing else. I hope to see more of the character in sequels. Hopefully with a more interesting story next time. Atomic Blonde has big franchise material.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6.5/10