Atomic Blonde Review: Style Over Substance
Atomic Blonde review: Director David Leitch brings his frenetic type of action to the spy genre, and a lot of style almost makes up for a little plot.
Atomic Blonde is a very stylish movie. From the neon drenched hotel rooms to the color dominated bars to the graffiti covered walls of West Berlin, the film is a visual feast, always offering something to look at. There are very few visually dull scenes. The story isn’t always able to match the look, but at the very least it is a pretty film.
Director David Leitch, (who kinda sorta but not officially co-directed John Wick – it’s complicated) makes his official directorial debut, and his influence is keenly felt. Atomic Blonde revels in ultraviolence, stylizing the brutality without underselling it. There are no puns or quips after a bad guy is killed, and people don’t take a bullet then miraculously pop back up to continue the fight 10 minutes later. It’s poetic in presentation, but realistic (to a degree) in its consequences.
It’s in those moments that the film is at its best. That in itself isn’t enough to elevate a few of the slower parts, but it helps a whole lot.
The setting in Atomic Blonde is almost a character in its own right, complete with feelings and motivations. Set days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West Germany are both electric with the tension in the air. The West is gearing up for a party like the likes of which the city – arguably even the world – has never seen before, while the East is reaching a breaking point.
On both sides, schemers and profiteers are looking for ways to take advantage of the coming chaos. It comes to a head when an MI6 agent (Sam Hargrave, although he will probably be mistaken for Joaquin Phoenix) is killed, and a list containing enough information to cripple the intelligence services of the West and extend the Cold War for decades is stolen from him. The name “Atomic Blonde” is a both a play on words and a bad pun, as the data is considered an “Atomic Bomb” of information. (Get it?)
The British decide to send in Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), one of their best and most ruthless agents to retrieve the list – and while she’s at it, to try to uncover the identity of a double agent working for the Russians known only as Satchel. Once in Berlin, she meets up with an MI6 station agent named David Percival (James McAvoy), who may have been in the field just a bit too long.
With the British, Russians, French, and Germans all looking for the stolen info, Broughton discovers that the list’s creator, an East German who goes by the codename Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), memorized every name and detail on the list, making him both an asset and a target as he tries to flee East Berlin before all Hell breaks loose.
The spy story is interesting in theory but falls a little flat in execution. It’s never really clear if you are supposed to see the twists coming or the film just sucks at hiding them, but either way, there is a lot of uninspired downtime between plot points, filled with plenty of stylish shots, as the plot muddles along.
As a side note, the less trailers you watch for Atomic Blonde, the better. The most recent official trailer (which is not linked below) features a massive spoiler. You won’t recognize it at first from the clip alone, but once you watch the movie and get the context, it gives away a major moment that is meant as a surprise. And there really aren’t too many of those in the film, so the less you know, the better.
Where the movie does excel is the action. Theron… well, she kicks ass. And not in the way that John Wick kicks ass, where he pretty much murders whoever he wants, occasionally taking a hit as he climbs over a mountain of bodies. Theron’s Broughton is amazingly tough and capable, but she’s also human. She can, and does, fight off several people at once, but it’s not an easy task. Each new opponent takes their toll, leaving her drained and a little worse for wear, making her ability to rally seem all the more impressive.
Broughton takes a beating that would make Die Hard’s John McClane – back when he was still a regular cop, before he became a super soldier – stop and say “damn.” There’s a brutality and desperation to the fights that make them fascinating to watch.
There is also a scene involving a fight and a car chase (which is done with multiple cuts but made to look like a single camera) that is both intense and insane. In a technical sense, Atomic Blonde is, at times, amazing, even if those moments are few and far between.
Theron eats every scene she is in, dominating the film with a confidence and grace – as long as she isn’t talking. For all her significant amounts of talent, her British accent is painfully bad – Kevin Costner in Robin Hood bad. It’s a little distracting, but her character is thankfully taciturn. McAvoy is also electric to watch, although he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Sofia Boutella also comes off well in a minor role, which is a nice bounce back for her after her unfortunate career detour Tom Cruise inflicted on her in The Mummy.
It all mostly works. The look, the late 80s music, the action… but the story just isn’t on the same level. It falls flat and the movie becomes more about jumping from action scene to action scene than a seamless experience. The good outweighs the bad, but pacing issues and plot elements let down an otherwise impressive outing.
Atomic Blonde Review Conclusion
They say you should always leave them wanting more, but they probably didn’t mean it in the way Atomic Blonde does. Theron and Leitch both have their moments, and the action, look, and overall style of the film are – at times – exceptional and riveting. The plot is almost an afterthought, however, and in a film that is meant to be a high-stakes spy thriller, the emotional weight just isn’t there.
There is a lot to like in Atomic Blonde, and hopefully, they can figure it out if (or when) a sequel is announced. Theron and Leitch deserve another go at it. they just need a better script to work from.
Atomic Blonde is rated R with a runtime of 115 minutes.