During the week before the fall of the Berlin Wall, undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) has arrived in the divided city. Her mission: to recover a list with the names of many clandestine operatives – including the identity of a double agent. Although eccentric spy David Percival (James McAvoy) wants Lorraine’s help, she tries to stick by her motto of “Trust no one.” Alone in a minefield of agents with sinister motives, Lorraine often has to rely on her steely intelligence and bravura physical abilities to complete her mission.
Atomic Blonde is a slick if empty spy thriller that ultimately works due to its main star’s charisma and some of the most imaginative action sequences in recent memory. Still, this adaptation of the graphic novel “The Coldest City” often feels like genre boilerplate. The MacGuffin of a secret list of agents is well worn. Meanwhile, anyone with an elementary knowledge of the swerving turns of a spy tale with double (or even triple) agents will prophesize some of the story beats. Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) uses a framing device of Lorraine, with a swollen eye and brusque attitude, being interviewed after her mission by agency superiors (played by Toby Jones and John Goodman). This has little purpose, and only interrupts the rising action in Berlin. Without this framing, the 115-minute thriller would move with the confidence and fluidity of Lorraine strutting through German locales.
Despite the familiarity of this spy tale and some stodgy pacing, the action sequences are outstanding. David Leitch is best known for co-directing John Wick, and although that film’s shootouts became repetitive, Atomic Blonde’s are ingeniously conceived. An early scene, set unexpectedly to a soaring George Michael tune, finds Lorraine fighting off baddies with little more than a rope. (She can lasso with more skill than Wonder Woman.) At around the hour mark, a prolonged showdown with a half-dozen thugs in a stairwell, rubble-filled apartment, and then out into the city streets, leaves one breathless. Leitch does a clever job hiding the cuts in what was conceived as a single-take sequence, which rivals the extended shots in Children of Men in their cinematographic complexity.
Atomic Blonde has long been a passion project for its star and producer, Theron. The Oscar winner projects an effortless cool that could intimidate Alain Delon (although some of her character’s attire is oddly conspicuous for an MI6 agent). However, the decision to withhold much of Lorraine’s background and personal desires ensures she remains an enigma until the final reel. Theron is absorbing enough of a screen presence to keep us enthralled. However, lacking a compelling human dimension, much of this striking venture keeps the audience at a distance, uninvolved.
Is Atomic Blonde Essential Viewing?
Yes. The thriller has its dull patches and some predictable plotting, but the riotous, relentless, rigorously performed action sequences are worth the price of admission alone. Meanwhile, the soundtrack – saturated with 1980s tracks from David Bowie, New Order and The Clash – is a keeper.
Atomic Blonde opens Friday, July 28, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.