It’s possible way may never get a female James Bond, and we’re still waiting for them to give Idris Elba a shot at Bond, but until they do we at least have this atomic fueled spy thriller by director David Leitch to hold us over. We can also revel in the increase in action films with female protagonist, from science fiction films like Lucy to the DC’s box office smash Wonder Woman, and Charlize Theron is certainly setting the bar high with this entry. One thing to take note of is that though the trailers seem to be marketing this as a John Wick style action film, and as it stars one of the directors that’s not surprising, but the film is actually more a cold war spy movie than what the marketing department is letting on.
Based on the graphic novel Coldest City by Sam Hart, and taking place just prior to the Berlin Wall falling, the story has a fairly basic plot; MI6 has lost an agent (Sam Hargrave), who was supposed to be acquiring a list with the names of various double agents that if got out could prolong the Cold War indefinitely, and so they send in British agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to get the list and possibly clean up the mess. Now movies with spies trying to get a hold of a list of undercover agents is certainly nothing new, even a 70s Wonder Woman made-for-TV movie used that stale McGuffin, for it to work what you have to do is populate your story with interesting characters that have good motivations, and then throw in some solid action set pieces. Atomic Blonde nails most of these qualities, the action sequences are some of the best I’ve seen, but if not all of those elements are handled equally as well what we do get is enough to keep us invested.
My biggest complaint would be the filmmaker’s decision to have the story be mostly told through a clunky framing device; a beaten an bruised Theron shows up at MI6 headquarters to be interviewed by her British superior (Toby Jones) and a top C.I.A official (John Goodman), thus the bulks of the film is told in flashbacks which kind of removes some of the tension as her being alive enough to be debriefed means any of those amazing fight sequences we see the outcome is pretty much assured. In fact every time the film cuts buck to the debriefing room it’s rather jarring and certainly doesn’t help with the pacing. Now as this film is all about double crosses, secret motivations and intrigue some of the information we learn in those scenes is crucial but it would have been nicer if Leitch could have made it work with maybe a more linear storytelling device.
I was also a little bit shocked at the tone of the film as the trailer made it look more in the vein of a “buddy movie” like The Nice Guys with Theron’s character having to team up with Berlin Station Chief David Percival (James McAvoy), which would lead to many action hijinks, but that is really not the case. Once again James McAvoy proves to be one of the most versatile actors working and when given a nice meaty role, like an undercover agent who may have gone a bit native, we get more than we bargained for. His performance here is simply riveting and I for one would gladly pay to see a prequel movie about Percival and his adventures prior to the Berlin Wall falling.
Another great element in the film is in the character of French spy Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) who Theron’s character encounters while trying to hunt done the list, all while also keeping an eye out for a notorious double agent, and she sparks up a brief but hot affair with her. What is surprisingly well done with this element of the movie, aside from being able to watch two of Hollywood’s most attractive people making out that is, but that the film does not make a big deal that this is a same-sex relationship, it’s just two people finding each other and having an emotional connection. James Bond has either seduced or fallen in love with countless female spies from rival agencies over the years and Theron and Boutella’s relationship easily on par with the best of those, that they are both women is completely irrelevant.
As mentioned there isn’t really anything new here as pertaining to the spy genre; critical information is needed, femme fatales are seduce or are seduced, KGB agents are around every corner, and the danger of betrayal at any second is all pretty standard, but what director David Leitch does provide us with is insanely visceral action sequences that will literally have you cringing in your seats. Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is not an indestructible superman, when we first see her her body is a roadmap of cuts and bruises, and when she goes toe to toe with villains that considerably outweigh her the film does not shy away from how brutal things can get. It’s her ability to think quickly on her feet, and not just her physical strength, that lets her come out on top. Of course as this is a Hollywood action film both Theron and McAvoy take hits that would most likely hospitalize a person in the real world but Leitch manages to sell it by not pushing it too far into the ridiculous.
Atomic Blonde may not be the most original spy thriller, or the best action film out there for that matter, but it’s easily one of the most entertaining. I hope that if this film does spark sequels we can get more into Theron’s character as the film doesn’t give us much beyond the surface, Lorraine Broughton isn’t in the same league as Theron’s Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road, but if seeing Charlize Theron in thigh high leather boots kicking the crap out of dozens of thug sounds like fun to you then you will not be disappointed.