It’s a cold, cold war in David Leitch’s vision of 1989 Berlin. Hyper-violent spies from the West and East play deadly cat-and-mouse games along streets and inside foreboding buildings. The fantasy is sharply realized in hues of blue and pink, and ’80s pop hits make welcome cameo appearances.
On a purely visceral level, “Atomic Blonde” is a masterful piece of cinema. But Leitch’s disinterest in storytelling clearly shows in the film’s lazy narrative. Its central figure, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), spends much of the movie recounting her failed Berlin mission to her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman). It’s a cheap way to string together a bunch of action scenes without putting in the effort to smoothly transition from one event to the next. The tired, uninspired dialogue slows “Atomic Blonde” too often, and the movie would’ve been better served by a leaner screenplay and edit.
When the film indulges in espionage, it tries to seem smarter than it is. There’s talk about a list containing the identities of all the double agents being smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and the consequences of the list falling into the wrong hands are vaguely dire. For some reason, Broughton’s contact in Berlin, station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), actually does more legwork in finding the list than she does. Broughton spends most of her time kicking ass or having steamy quality time with a naïve French operative, Delphine (Sofia Boutella). She’s less of a secret agent and more of an unstoppable train.
Broughton displays no personality beyond Theron’s chilly line deliveries. Most of this super spy’s likeability simply comes from Theron’s charisma and physicality, and her athletic build and hard-edged glares make her a believably fatal attraction. But the lack of character development undermines her half-baked romance with Delphine, whom she inexplicably grows to care about in a matter of minutes. McAvoy gets the better half of the script, providing the lively, wild foil to Theron’s steely performance. Unlike the single mindedly serious agents and their stiff-lipped superiors, Percival looks like he’s actually having fun.
It’s not surprising that “Atomic Blonde” succeeds on the action front. Leitch co-directed “John Wick” and has been tapped to direct “Deadpool 2.” It would be an understatement to say he knows his stuff when staging a set piece, as most of the fight sequences are fluid, expertly-choreographed and memorable. They are laced with tension and vulnerability, and their occasional inventiveness make the film a joy when it unleashes these smooth bursts of excitement.
If there’s anything in “Atomic Blonde” that people will buzz about, it’s a seven-minute battle royale that starts on a staircase, ravages a well-furnished room and spills into the streets. With the help of digital trickery, the scene is presented in one, impressive take. Theron uses an array of guns, with and without bullets, and pieces of furniture to obliterate anyone who stands in her way, and it is magnificent. She enters the fray confident and poised, and she leaves bloody, bruised and unsteady. Winning is just as much about who can recover from a stunning blow first, rather than who has the flashier moves. This scene is as close as “Atomic Blonde” gets to perfection, and it’s almost worth slogging through the murky story to watch it unfold.
Alas, “Atomic Blonde” takes much too long to get to the good stuff. It’s fun when it gets to show off, but it suffers in its quieter moments, with unclear stakes and bland characters. Theron’s a good lead, but Broughton is not Furiosa. “Atomic Blonde” promises something explosive and grasps at excellence — it just has too much whimper and not enough bang.
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 115 minutes
Score: 2.5 / 5 stars