Atomic Blonde (David Leitch, 2017) 2½ out of 4 stars.
As you watch Atomic Blonde, it should come as no surprise that its director, David Leitch, is a stuntman and stunt coordinator with a career going back over 20 years. This may be his feature directorial signbut (though he has an uncredited role, on IMDb.com, as co-director of John Wick), but his command of action sequences – along with his inventive choreography – is impressive and entertaining. Who better than a man who has devoted his life to the physicality of cinematic mayhem to take us on an adrenaline-fueled journey through the world of high-stakes espionage? What is less expected is the playfulness of his visual aesthetic, combining clever graphics and fully realized production design (including a fight scene set against an arthouse screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker) in a heady mix that throws us back into the fevered atmosphere of 1989 Berlin, just as the wall is about to come down. Unfortunately, much of the good is undone by excessive and gratuitous violence, and a script that falters halfway through as it gives way to maudlin sentimentality and predictable plot twists. Still, the energy of the fight scenes should prove enough of a draw to lure even the most squeamish into a brief happy place before the bloodlust hangover sets in.
Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) plays Lorraine, an agent of MI6 (British Intelligence – you know, the home of James Bond) sent to Berlin in the middle of the East/West breakdown to track down a microfilm that holds the name of all undercover British spies, including a double agent who may just be responsible for the film’s opening killing of another MI6 operative. The movie toggles back and forth between the official post-op investigation of her mission, and the mission, itself, creating solid dramatic tension that keeps us fully engaged in the narrative, at least initially. True, the entire set-up feels cribbed from Bryan Singer’s taut 1995 police procedural The Usual Suspects, but for good long stretches its style and panache carry it through. No matter Leitch’s skill as a director, however, the real reason Atomic Blonde works as well as it does is because Theron is so sublimely perfect in the role. A skilled killer, Lorraine is far from superhuman – our first shot of her reveals a back and face bruised and battered – and though she wins her fights, we see the effort it costs her. But her calm and self-possession are a wonder to behold, as are her outfits and hairstyles.
Indeed, much of the movie feels like what might happen if the listless models in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon suddenly revealed themselves to be world-class assassins. Both films are ultimately equally vacuous, but at least this one moves. Theron is assisted in her escapades by a near-manic (and near-perfect), almost feral James McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse) and a ridiculously sultry Sofia Boutella, who brings real presence to her role (as she did in the recent The Mummy), but deserves more than a few gorgeously photographed lesbian love scenes with Theron to justify her character’s place in the story. Rounding out the cast are such stalwarts as Toby Jones (Morgan), Eddie Marsan (A Kind of Murder) and John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), as well as many brawny adversaries for Theron to dispatch. When the movie focuses on the thrill of battle and the intrigue that got us there, it mostly succeeds, as long as you are prepared for much gruesome shedding of blood. But every time we are asked to care about the human soul of the characters, or pretend that we don’t see the ending that surely lies ahead, it falls flat.
The whole affair is based on a 2012 graphic novel, entitled The Coldest City (which I haven’t read) by Antony Johnson. His is a wild imagination, as the chaos of late 1989 Berlin is the perfect setting for a tale of spies gone wild. It also provides a great excuse for director Leitch to fill the soundtrack with 1980s pop and new-wave music, which combines nicely with the decor to make us feel right at home in the time. There really is much to admire in Atomic Blonde, but even more than in the aforementioned John Wick, where the excess always threatened to undermine the sly premise, here there is either too much cruelty when restraint would work better, or too much emotional sogginess when none is justified. When it sticks to being a pulpy action homage to the powers of Charlize Theron, however, it almost always shoots straight.