“Trust no one.”
While not outright ditzy or dumb or as cool as it thinks itself to be, Atomic Blonde is a whole lot more boring of a film than its trailer might suggest. We are sold through said previews to expect the second coming of John Wick in the female form, kicking ass and taking names and seducing us over its draining, nearly two-hour run time. That 80’s inspired action happens like a virgin – all too briefly but absolutely beautifully – in a movie that’s more likened to a slow-burning John le Carré espionage adaptation than the frenetic shoot ’em up piece of pop art target practice it stylishly frames itself as. I yawned, I admittedly texted, and I spaced out during Atomic Blonde on numerous occasions. And during two jaw-dropping sequences I was left speechless. I’m still wondering how the story managed to be so lethargic, the combat so inventive, and the mix of the two so damn mediocre.
Set mere days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, traveling between London and the free-thinking East and the controlled West, Atomic Blonde has its history right with looks authentic enough to get a passport stamp at Checkpoint Charlie. While riots ensue, the hot commodity on the trade market is a wristwatch; specifically, one with a list of secret agents tucked inside its casing. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is ordered to meet up with the hard-drinking and ostensibly untrustworthy Berlin station agent James Percival (James McAvoy), recover the list before it winds up in the wrong hands, all while safely protecting defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). Atomic Blonde aims its sight to merge the careful double-crossing of politically charged spy thrillers with the kinetic energy of an action film uncuffed from logic. The two styles are obvious, and so obviously never align, either.
This review should come with a disclaimer: I tend to passionately dislike the espionage genre as a whole. It’s so fueled by unnecessary and manufactured problems, characters who have names and should matter but flee from memory (perhaps intentionally), and when done poorly – as is the case with Atomic Blonde’s endlessly burning fuse – have the tendency to build towards a seismic shift of an ending without real cause or repercussions. It’s all over-dressed, like a limp salad bathing in a sour vinaigrette, like an outsider confusing a formal affair with a black tie event, like a swimmer wearing a bodysuit to a nude beach. While the sequel leans towards overkill, I can still admit that I severely underrated John Wick’s clever subversion of genre into a divinely basic story. Whereas Atomic Blonde hardly earns its too little acted upon vengeance and bloodlust, John Wick has enemies who kill his pup and the last gift from his late wife. Mr. Wick only sins to avenge his lost saint and to survive from there on out. He rains bullets with passion while Lorraine Broughton kills out of conspiracy and paranoia, or maybe because she’s had one too many Stoli’s on the rocks. Lorraine is more complicated, and so is the storytelling, but both are considerably more morally bankrupt and clandestine than Keanu Reeves’ hitman. Atomic Blonde doesn’t come close to the arc of predecessors such as La Femme Nikita because it arrogantly pulls the pins on its grenades and clutches them indefinitely.
Atomic Blonde is less a textbook example of style over substance and more an albino imitation of other colorfully character driven films. It features gaudy spray-painted title cards, scenes resembling a bomb pop melting in the hands of a clueless and eventually sticky toddler, and a back-and-forth narrative which rarely ever elaborates on the hoppy dialogue or the peculiar editing which people will frivolously talk about afterwards. Sure, we get another Charlize Theron performance that belongs in a far better scripted film, another devilish turn from McAvoy that cements him as this generation’s most game actor, and two astonishing sequences from director David Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela so painstakingly rehearsed that they deserve their own stars on the walk of fame. Both set pieces transfix, excite, and rustle us around in our seats. Atomic Blonde could have been a great picture had it escalated its already unexcitable pacing into something more turbulent. Instead, it’s a Neapolitan sundae left in a Summer driveway. There’s as much blood and sweat and tears behind Atomic Blonde’s sprawling signature as there is plain disinterest. This is an average film with great, well-oiled parts, which makes me hope it loots for a heart and an engine in the genre’s junkyard.
“Right now I’m not feeling very confident about this story of yours.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5