Atomic Blonde is not the movie that the marketing wants you to think it is. From the previews and marketing push, it’s clear that the studio would like you to believe that the film is John Wick with a female. To that end, the presence of director David Leitch, who co-directed and co-wrote John Wick, has been a major selling point. This is not that movie. Not in the least.
That’s important to keep in mind when viewing Atomic Blonde. While it certainly shares some stylistic DNA with Wick—including a particularly badass stairwell fight scene that ranks with the best action scenes of all time—this film is more a straightforward espionage tale. One that you’ve no doubt seen before. Narratively, nothing particularly new is brought to the table—Cold War, backstabbing, counter betrayals, hidden enemies—but that doesn’t detract from the overall fun of the film.
Or rather, doesn’t once you get over the sense of being bamboozled by the marketing decisions. Sure, there are a few scenes that mimic the Wickian freneticism, but those are merely the chewy center of this spy treat. Once you move past any disappointment you might have over the realities of the film, Atomic Blonde becomes a journey of twisting delights, filled with top notch performances punctuated by a banging new wave soundtrack.
Charlize Theron plays MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who’s sent to Berlin in the waning days of the Berlin Wall in order to retrieve a list of agents that was stolen following the murder of her former partner. Once there, she rendezvouses with Agent David Percival (James McAvoy), who’s been undercover in the city so long that he’s begun to go native and follow his own set of rules. While seeking out the missing list, she finds herself embroiled in a potential conspiracy that threatens the identities and lives secret agents around the world thanks to the machinations of a possible double agent working with the KGB.
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde has been developed for half a decade by Theron, who guided the film through production and helped bring Leitch on board as director. Her passion shows in her portrayal of Agent Broughton, who’s brought to life with a cold intensity that matches the snowy landscape of Berlin.
Theron did all her own stunts for the movie, solidifying her commitment to becoming one of the unlikeliest action heroes of the day. (God bless her for that. Her career could’ve gone in a thousand different directions, but the weirder she gets with it the better she becomes.) Her willingness to perform her own stunts allows the film to get up close and personal with the action.
In its boldest moments, Atomic Blonde shows us what so few action films ever think to show us. Broughton, even with her preternatural murder abilities, is often exhausted and run ragged by her enemies and Theron captures this beautifully. In one scene, she can barely stand but still manages to inflict a righteous fury on her adversary. In others, she’s so bruised and bloodied that she can barely move.
This brings an interesting humanity to the character that so many action films tend to neglect. In an age of indestructible superheroes, Broughton is completely mortal. This makes her danger more real and her successes more rewarding—it’s one thing to beat the bad guy when you can bring down a building with a single solid punch, and quite another when the only thing keeping you going is the knowledge that you’re dead if you do not.
McAvoy is a true delight as Percival. Broughton never quite knows whether or not to trust him or his motives, and neither do we, but he’s a joy to watch as an ode to excess and New Wave stylings. He plays his role perfectly, never allowing himself (or the audience) to commit his allegiance one way or the other. He’s the antithesis of Theron’s character completely, and whether they’re working with or against each other, the dynamic is an absolute blast.
Structure is the film’s weakest component. Framed as a debriefing, the film is told as a series of flashbacks while Broughton recounts her time in Berlin to MI6 agent Eric Grey (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). While this does allow for some occasionally interesting banter, for the most part these interludes disrupt the flow of the film, working mainly as an excuse for exposition dumps in order to keep the audience in the loop. It’s a tired device, but while mildly distracting it never detracts from the film’s overall narrative.
It’s not a perfect film by any measure, but Atomic Blonde still manages to be fun and entertaining despite its flaws. Between Theron’s performance and Leitch’s vision, the Cold War has never been hotter. Slick and stylish, Atomic Blonde is escapism at its finest and more than worth a couple of hours of your attention.
Atomic Blonde is now playing in theaters everywhere.