When it comes to the future of action cinema, at least as far as set pieces go, guys like David Leitch are shaping the future. After a decade or so of everyone relying on shaky cam and hoping it would turn out like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, Leitch and his John Wick co-director Chad Stahleski are shaping a new way of showing action in a clean, thrilling, and fascinating manner. Leitch brings that inventiveness to Atomic Blonde, which he directed solo, and while the set pieces are as exciting as one would expect, not enough attention is paid to the story. It’s packed with spy thriller conventions of double and triple crosses, but you fail to care because the characters are so painfully uninteresting. Leitch then drenches the film in neon and 80s tunes, but it all feels overcooked rather than embellishments to serve the story.
Set in 1989 right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story follows MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who’s relating the story of her mission in Berlin to her superiors at headquarters in London. Lorraine was sent to Berlin to retrieve a list of agent identities that was stolen off the body of her former lover. Once in Berlin, she meets up with fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy), who informs her that in addition to the list, they also have to protect defecting Stasi agent “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan). Meanwhile, KGB agents are always trying to kill Lorraine since they also want to find the list.
Whereas John Wick could coast on its action thanks to a lean plot, a comically simple premise (they killed his puppy!), and a rich world that we always wanted to know more about, Atomic Blonde is always getting bogged down in a story it doesn’t know how to handle. The movie throws a ton of characters at us, but Leitch can’t balance the intrigue, so we’re never invested in anyone. Lorraine is cold and detached, David is wild and rambunctious, and the film never makes it particularly clear what they’re supposed to be doing together. He’s her contact in Berlin, but because she’s told to “trust no one”, she’s always off doing her own thing, leaving the film to conspicuously dangle David into the story even though he doesn’t really fit.
The movie continually jumps between its framing device, West Berlin, and East Berlin as if it’s terrified it’s going to lose your attention if there’s anything other than action happening on the screen. But the problem is that for all the trappings Leitch piles on to his movie from the 80s-packed soundtrack to the neon color palette of the interiors to the icy blues of the exteriors we’re not interested in the characters. Lorraine is an action-delivery system but without any pathos. Theron’s decision to play Lorraine as a hardened operative renders her into a distant killing machine. The actress has way more range than the character provides, and it’s almost like the pitch was “Just do Aeon Flux again but the set pieces will be much better.”
And the action is undeniably better than just about anything else out there with maybe the exception of the John Wick movies. While Leitch teases us with a few brief skirmishes, he really lets loose at the climax of the second act with a single long shot that’s absolutely insane. It almost feels like the entire movie exists just so this fight scene can happen, and I have to admit that the fight scene is worth it. It’s just that extraordinary. The way Leitch captures all of the fighting, the way Theron sells the hell out of the fisticuffs, and the utter brutality of it all is astounding. It makes you wish that the rest of the movie was even half as exhilarating.
I love the idea of Atomic Blonde—Charlize Theron as one-woman war machine who’s able to take down anyone who gets in her way. Unfortunately, the spy thriller surrounding all of that and the weak characterization undermines the strength of the premise, so all of the trappings feel like they’re doing the heavy lifting because the story and characters aren’t enough to get you invested. You’ll bop your head along to the 80s tunes, you’ll cheer at the set pieces, and then you’ll try to figure out what it all added up to.