The basic premise of “Atomic Blonde” sounds like a can’t miss movie. A hyper-stylized action flick starring Charlize Theron that is directed by one-half of the duo behind “John Wick” set in 1989 Berlin? It’s surely a winner…right?
Sadly, “Atomic Blonde” drags along for what feels like an eternity, even though it’s only 115 minutes long. Director David Leitch breaks the monotony with a few action sequences that, while technically brilliant, only serve as a small wake up call in between a John le Carre-wannabe spy tale. In fact, gold stars to those who can make any sense of Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay.
One thing is for certain, Charlize Theron’s MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton can sure take a beating. When we first meet her, she’s taking an ice bath presumably to sooth her bruised from head to toe body. She’s called in to explain the events of the previous ten days to her boss, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).
The entirety of “Atomic Blonde” is told via flashbacks in a very straight forward manner that somehow becomes extremely confusing. Lorraine was sent to West Berlin to work with David Percival (James McAvoy), the MI6 Berlin station chief who earns a living on the side dealing black market American jeans and Jack Daniels and is declared to be “feral” by his bosses.
They are tasked with finding a list that would out every CIA and MI6 spy on Earth that was lost by a now dead MI6 agent. There’s a hint that Lorraine was romantically involved with him, but that plot thread is as dead as the barrage of KGB agents that Lorraine inexplicably runs in to at every turn. The list has also been memorized by a guy named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who Lorraine and David need to smuggle from East Berlin over to West Berlin.
One of the most insane aspects of “Atomic Blonde” is that Lorraine is surrounded by spies doing spy stuff, but she doesn’t participate in any of it. Director Leitch just shows her in designer lingerie as she sticks a tape recorder to her thigh then she walks outdoors in small amounts of clothing and boom…all the spy stuff just happens to her. It makes it seem like this flux of spies from a handful of nations are actually looking for her and not this mysterious list of spies.
Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela are undoubtedly skilled at creating visceral action. There is an “unedited” stairway fight between Lorraine and what seems like a dozen guys that is equal parts amazing to behold and overcooked. It becomes so lengthy that you may start to try to spot the hidden edits instead of paying attention to the bloody combat, no matter how cool it all looks.
Just in case you weren’t sure it was occurring in 1989 (the Berlin Wall coming down is a big hint), there are neon lights all over the place and “Atomic Blonde” is littered with 1980s pop. It’s literally impossible for a scene in which Charlize Theron walks along a chilly Berlin street set to David Bowie’s “Cat People” not be exceptionally cool, but seeing a Russian baddie pummel a guy as “99 Luftballons” blares through a boom box is fairly played out.
From the second that puppy is killed in “John Wick” (whoops, spoiler alert), everyone watching that movie was hooked and on board with John’s revenge-filled rampage. There’s nothing remotely close to that in “Atomic Blonde” and it leaves you with zero emotional attachment to Charlize Theron’s Lorriane. She’s after a list of names of people not in the movie (that you don’t care about) and the only reason you are on Team Lorraine is because she’s Charlize Theron and the star of the movie.
Theron gives it her all and this is a physically impressive performance. She punches, kicks, leaps, falls, and gets bloodied just as much as action stars of the opposite sex do and she does it all extremely well. She’s highly likable (thank goodness) and her smirks and snappy insults are easily the best thing about the movie. Her screen presence and the handful of slick action sequences keep “Atomic Blonde” from being a complete disaster.
But the most egregious error of “Atomic Blonde” is the use of “Der Kommissar” by After The Fire as opposed to the Falco version…which is entirely in German. It’s potentially the biggest missed opportunity in movie history.