Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)


John Wick co-director David Leitch takes us on an neon-doused, 80’s soundtrack infused trip back in time to 1989 Berlin in this unique action spy-thriller starring Charlize Theron.


When David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s directorial debuy John Wick hits theater screens in 2014, its grounded action style set the action cinema world ablaze. Leitch and Stahelski had an extensive action and stuntwork background and sought to make a film that would showcase stunts and fighting action in an all-new way and succeeded in making Wick the action sleeper of the year and creating a franchise in the process.

Now Leitch is back with Atomic Blonde, a new action spy thriller starring Charlize Theron as MI-6 operative Lorraine Broughton. It is 1989 and the Berlin Wall is on the cusp of tumbling. Amidst this peaceful revolution, Broughton’s lover and fellow spy James Gasciogne (San Hargrave) is attempting to retrieve an intelligence list for MI-6 when he is gunned down by an agent of an undercover espionage ring led by a Russian agent named Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Møller). Broughton is tasked to go to Berlin under the cover that she is recovering Gasciogne’s body and is supposed to connect with David Percival (James McAvoy) an undercover MI-6 agent, who may or may not have gone rogue and turned mole.

Much like John Wick, the plot of Atomic Blonde is essentially a bare bones skeleton on which to hang plenty of sequences of Charlize Theron being an ass-kicking, gun-toting super spy. Much like Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, Theron’s Broughton is a spy who has lived a life of adventures prior to this film and is as weather-beaten as Daniel Craig’s Bond is in that film of the spy life. The film is nothing without the energy that Theron throws into her character and her on-screen charisma is what allows you to buy into a film that is dependent on a star to carry it as John Wick was on Keanu Reeves. Between that and the film’s best of the 1980’s supercut jukebox soundtrack featuring classic cuts by New Order, Depeche Mode, Queen, Public Enemy, and David Bowie, the film’s style is eye-catching and pretty intoxicating. The film’s title intro with a supermodel-esque Theron strutting through the streets of London to the theme of Bowie’s “Cat People” is the definition of iconic, made all the more striking by the film’s cinematography and production design, despite the track’s obvious Tarantino nod for the discerning cinephile. However, the film’s heavy reliance on iconic period music becomes a crutch for natural storytelling and character development throughout where a track is just overlaid over montages of characters looking pensive. Using music as a queue for nostalgia can be an effective method to invoke mood or atmosphere to be sure, but when its done as often as it is here, it loses its punch rather quickly.

The cinematography in the film as mentioned earlier is easily one of the big draws of seeing Atomic Blonde on the big screen. With the same stunt team as John Wick, you know they want to push the envelope and the fight scenes are hard hitting and brutal. The film is staged around various big fight and action setpieces and Jonathan Sela handles those almost as deftly as he did the fight scenes and cinematography in John Wick. That being said, there is an extended fight sequence that is edited to look as if its one long continuous unbroken take later in the film between Theron’s character and a Russian thug played by Daniel Bernhardt (one of the best parts of John Wick, here he looks like the love child of Billy Idol and Jon Hamm). The fight scene is, in itself, very cool with both characters fighting to the point of exhaustion, but the editing and camera tricks to make it look like an unbroken shot don’t really have a payoff and make it feel incongruous to the rest of the film. The fight scene before it with Theron versus a sniper and a pair of thugs is all the better by comparison, interjecting humor while delivering an adrenaline shot that keeps you invested in the film. Theron throws herself into this role full-heartedly, to the point where you actively flinch and groan when her character takes a beating from spies and thugs throughout the piece; this isn’t an Aeon Flux scenario where she beats people up and flips over them to avoid damaging her intricately sculpted coiffure, Leitch makes Theron’s Broughton as fallible as Reeves’ Wick. In some respects, it really serves to draw the comparison between Theron’s Broughton to Daniel Craig’s Bond, where all you see either do is get the stuffing beat out of them, look glamorous for an office scene or wear next to nothing for a sexy rendezvous/shot showing off their battle damage while in a tub, all of which you get in spades in this film.

The other solid draw besides the film’s fight choreography and filmwork is the opportunity to behold another crazy, off-kilter big screen performance by James McAvoy. 2017 has definitely been McAvoy’s year, from the tour-de-force he gives in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, that showed he had a real range and depth as a character actor that could glue you to the screen. Here, his role here as David Percival, the contact for Theron’s character contact in Berlin, only reinforces that. McAvoy plays Percival as an unhinged, devil-may-care antagonist who is doing what he can to keep himself alive and plays with his own set of rules. While Theron has a quiet and magnetic movie star charisma that draws you into the film, its McAvoy who engages you with the film’s most compelling character and has you guessing what side is he on. Sofia Boutella (late of The Mummy remake earlier this summer) plays Delphine, an undercover French agent who doesn’t really get much to do save play damsel in distress to Theron’s character. Given how Boutella has more than played the action card in films like Kingsmen The Secret Service and The Mummy, its unfortunate to see her playing a essentially a stock character here in a largely forgettable role as a sexpot/glorified gun moll to Theron. Boutella can do more and is kind of wasted. John Goodman also chews the scenery here as a CIA field agent who does little more than serve as a deus ex machina later in the film. However, you do get a nice supporting spot here from Toby Jones who really gives the film’s framing conceit a sense of gravitas and whose performance really sells the importance of Theron’s character and mission.

Ultimately, Atomic Blonde is a fun popcorn diversion. It will inevtably draw comparisons to John Wick gives its pedigree and subject matter, but hews much closer to the formula of modern James Bond films. Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton will likely not capture the imagination of the public as Reeves’ Wick did, but there is a fun sense of escapism watching spies battle it out mano a mano in a hyper-stylized mega 1980’s music video spy world. In many ways, it’s the Streets of Fire of spy movies – a hyper stylized and fetishized ode to to a byegone era that most will remember for a few cool scenes and a good soundtrack and there’s really nothing too bad about that, save the fact it could’ve been much more.

  • Adam Rutkowski

    I am less impressed with this movie regardless of the director’s pedigree. At most I’d suggest waiting for a rental (at best). The whole time I was watching it all I thought of is how it would appeal to hipsters with a hard-on for a hodgepodge of alternative music from the early to late 80’s. The first hour and 15 minutes is a total snore then the last hour, albeit some good camera work and edits, pulled out all the punches but too late for what should’ve been a better build up. The movie was unbalanced and dower. I didn’t give a crap about any of the characters, if he or she lived or died? I didn’t care. The guy who memorized the list? Don’t care. What are the stakes again? Why are we in Berlin? Don’t care. Make everything as drab and colorless as possible because: Russia & Germany during the Cold War, or whenever… always. Don’t care. It’s not an incompetent movie but it’s not something I would recommend to see in the theater even as a throwaway matinee popcorn movie.

  • Adam Rutkowski

    How did “Streets Of Fire” come into your evaluation? Personally, I don’t see the connection. If ATOMIC BLONDE had a rock and roll fantasy vibe like STREETS OF FIRE does, then I’d understand but I just don’t see the parallel in any way.

    • Streets of Fire is a hyper stylized fetishization of a bye gone decade with a too cool hero that more memorable for its soundtrack than its plot, much like this is a hyper stylized fetishization of the 80’s with a too cool hero that more people will like for its soundtrack than its barebones plot. I should’ve added that in at the end and I’ll probably drop that in once I get back home so people will get where I’m coming from on this.