Atomic Blonde *** ½ / *****
Directed by: David Leitch.
Written by: Kurt Johnstad based on the graphic novel series by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart.
Starring: Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (Chief 'C'), Roland Møller (Aleksander Bremovych), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Bill Skarsgård (Merkel), Sam Hargrave (James Gasciogne), Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Yuri Bakhtin), Til Schweiger (Watchmaker).
I don’t think the plot of Atomic Blonde makes a whole lot of sense. It takes place in 1989, in Berlin, right before the wall came down, and centers on a stolen list of secret agents. The person who stole the list is a Stasi officer, stationed on the Communist side, and all sides want the list – the Brits, the Russians, the Americans and even the French – because it would expose all the secret agents working in Berlin. But who did the Stasi officer steal the list from? If he stole it from the Russians, then they’d want it because it would expose their guys – but they seem to want it, because having it would expose the British and American officers. But the Brits and Americans want it, because it would expose a double agent working for them and the Russians. Everyone wants to the list because they want the information on it – which raises the question, where the hell did this list come from? This bothered me – a little – the whole movie, and perhaps there is a simple explanation to this, an once it’s explained to me, I’ll feel like an idiot for not realizing it in the first place. It also didn’t for a second hinder my enjoyment of Atomic Blonde which is a spy thriller and action film from director David Leitch – the uncredited co-director of the original John Wick, which is obvious early on. But more importantly, it’s because of star Charlize Theron, who you cannot take your eyes off of. The list is a McGuffin, and the plot is pretty much nonsensical – and yet, there is never a moment where you doubt that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is a British agent who shows up in Berlin when another agent – who she had a personal relationship with – is murdered, and has the list stolen from him by a Russian agent – who then goes rogue. Her job is to team up with the Brits senior man there – David Percival (James McAvoy) – who himself has gone kind of rogue – and find the list. She’s compromised the moment she sets foot in Berlin, but stays anyway. Eventually, she’ll not only have to get the list, but also have to try and smuggle the man who stole it in the first place (Eddie Marsan) across the border. And because she looks like Charlize Theron, everyone she meets – man and woman – tries to seduce her.
It is in the action sequences where Atomic Blonde is both at its best, and when it’s closest to John Wick. Those movies have the advantage of simplicity on their side – in the first man, thugs kill a retired hitman’s dog, so he goes on a killing spree, the sequel has him forced back into life, and going on another killing spree. There you go, that’s the entire plot of two John Wick movies. I could spend the rest of the day trying to explain what happens in Atomic Blonde, and still not be able to do it. But it kind of doesn’t matter – the action sequences have the same visceral thrill to them that John Wick’s do – the same bloody mess. I do think that Leitch relies too much on shaky camera work at times, but mainly, he knows when to hold the shot – there is a hallway fight sequence, where Theron protects her man, and kicks a lot of ass, all done in seemingly one shot, that is already legendary for the type of scene it is. All of the action sequences are similarly well handled and exciting.
And when Theron isn’t kicking ass, she’s still the center of nearly every scene. She plays Lorraine as a cold as ice killer – allowing herself only a few, mostly private moments of either pleasure or pain – and she does it better than I’ve seen her do it before (she wasn’t really that good in the latest Fast & Furious movie as the villain – and she has mixed results in other blockbusters playing cold roles). Here, she gets on the movies wavelength from the start, and her performance is a riot. The rest of the cast gamely tries to keep up – McAvoy is essentially repeating his role in Filth again, but he’s fun. Everyone else kind of fades into the background as Theron takes over.
I don’t think Atomic Blonde is quite the film that either John Wick film is – but that’s because the plot more than anything, not because of Theron – who I want to see in this type of movie again, and soon. She’s great – the film is pretty good – but she’s what makes it worth seeing.