Far more often than not, Atomic Blonde is not more than it is. Atomic Blonde is not a “realistic” late eighties spy thriller à la Graham Greene or even John le Carré (see, I can do nineties “New Yorker” levels of extra too). It’s not a James Bond movie with a female lead (Charlize Theron). It’s not a great part for Theron. It might be a great role–Blonde’s got its problems but none hurt the idea of a sequel for Theron. In fact, if it weren’t filled with so many twists and turns–which is, unfortunately, what Atomic Blonde is, what it wants endeavors to be—full of twists and turns. Because Blonde really doesn’t care about logic, it cares about effect. I was going to say impact and effect but… actually, not so much impact. Because Blonde also isn’t some amazing all-out action picture with Theron kicking ass for a hundred minutes set to an amazing eighties soundtrack. There’s some Theron kicking ass, there’s some excellent action, there’s some… great songs… adequately applied, but all of those successes are extremely qualified.
First—Theron. Who is in every scene save a handful and the action is centered around her. She’s a British spy going to West Berlin to get a master list of spies out of East Berlin before the wall falls or the Soviets find it. Now, maybe biggest logic problem in the movie? Who made the stupid list. See, there’s the super-secret double agent who is doing terrible damage. Double agent British and Soviet, so originally a British spy, but then turned to the Soviets. The movie takes a while to introduce that detail—originally Theron just thinks the list is about not outing all the other spies, she’s not even aware of the double agent until the action in the movie takes place. Also there’s a dead ex-lover in Berlin. There’s a lot. And Blonde does a good job establishing it. The first act is incredibly solid. But once it becomes clear it’s not going to do anything particularly interesting with Theron or anyone else… it gets a little tedious. Even the action, which isn’t good.
See, Blonde increases the spans without action as the film progresses. Less action overall, longer action scenes. Sometimes it’s a car chase all in a “continuous” shot, sometimes it’s a fistfight. Actually, in the case of the car chase, it’s the fistfight then the car chase. It’s a whole lot. Atomic Blonde can be a lot, but never quite the right a lot. Where to gets going in the third act, with all the reveals and consequences of twists… there’s enough material it could’ve been a much better part for Theron. If it had been more Graham Green or John le Carré. Or if it had been less. If it had just been the action, the endurance aspect would’ve been awesome for Theron. The in-between doesn’t leave her much in the end. Potential for a better written sequel, which isn’t great.
It would also help if James McAvoy weren’t so bland. He’s the British West Berlin station chief and he’s “gone native,” or so spymaster Toby Jones worries, which immediately makes McAvoy suspicious re: the double agent to the audience and Theron and even Bond girl French spy Sofia Boutella, but not Jones or big boss James Faulkner or, seemingly, anyone in Berlin. Maybe it’s bad exposition on the double agent thing. Blonde sometimes rushes exposition—it leverages the direction, the photography (Jonathan Sela), Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s excellent but underutilized editing, and lead Theron being cool to get over the pesky details. Blonde avoids the details of the twists and turns to get the effect. Hence the aforementioned lack of impact.
Director Leitch doesn’t care enough about the soundtrack—and, I’ve been wanting Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” in an action movie since the late nineties and it’s finally in one and it’s in a very problematic sequence involving Bond girl Boutella. They do a really weird job of establishing Boutella in the film—including via a Blow Out homage—and she’s one of the film’s biggest misses. Biggest miss? James McAvoy. He’s got less heft as a Berlin spy in the late eighties than Til Schweiger, who’s in three thirty second scenes, with no close-ups, always sitting down. Theron carries McAvoy through their scenes, which isn’t easy because she doesn’t get a lot of lines opposite him. She does with some of the other characters, but McAvoy’s supposed to be dominating their scenes and Theron literally has to hold it up with silent energy. McAvoy’s exhausting. And he never pays off, even in a little, in performance or script. The latter isn’t the bigger problem but it never giving McAvoy anything good, even at the end… eh.
McAvoy being so bland hurts the rest of the cast. John Goodman being bland in a much smaller role, an extended cameo maybe—he’d be able to get away with it if it were’t for McAvoy. Even Jones, who does an entirely serviceable job… it’d be nice if he had some personality. Faulkner’s good though. Eddie Marsan’s good enough. Roland Møller and Bill Skarsgård are both fine and likable, but there’s not much for them to actually do.
Last minute callouts to Cindy Evans’s costumes (she makes Theron into an unironic fashion icon and David Scheunemann’s production design; Blonde does look good.
As a “Charlize Theron, action hero” vehicle, Atomic Blonde’s solid enough. But it’s not Atomic or Blonde and doesn’t even really try to be. It’s perfunctory.
Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; costume designer, Cindy Evans; produced by A.J. Dix, Eric Gitter, Beth Kono, Kelly McCormick, Peter Schwerin, and Charlize Theron; released by Focus Features.
Starring Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Møller (Aleksander Bremovych), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (Chief ‘C’), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Bill Skarsgård (Merkel), and Til Schweiger (Watchmaker).