Director: David Leitch
Screenplay: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan
Runtime: 115 Minutes
The passion project of producer and star Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde finds its wings in collaboration with John Wick co-director David Leitch, and now that she’s a bona fide action star the backing was all but confirmed the second the comparison to the director’s previous work was made.
Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the film flaunts its decidedly non-serious state of mind through its pulpy opening credits and neon text. Though set predominantly in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, its John le Carré tinged premise of espionage and double agents holed up in dank European buildings is undercut by the visual approach that Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela take. Radiating with style through its transitions and camera angles, the scorched lighting of the present-day London interrogation room is the contrast with the pulsing glows of deep colours in the memories of our lead, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), as we see the story she tells through flashback.
Theron is always at her most interesting when playing against type for the way in which Hollywood would choose to present her, and we’re introduced to the MI6 agent bruised and bloodied in a bathtub before she dresses up for the outside world. Theron is dazzling, but she uses her sexuality as a means of advancing her mission and gathering intelligence rather than mere titillation. Her character is an intentional cipher but she underplays it well enough to get through scenes shared with an unrestrained James McAvoy as an agent of native, and the charismatic Sofia Boutella, who continues in her blazing of the Hollywood ladder as a born movie star and the emotional peak of the film.
The action scenes are few but arrive with anticipation and are overall excellent given the director's previous experience in stunt work. Bloody and blunt with a brilliant staging to them, they range from a silhouetted fight against the hazy blue of Tarkovsky’s Stalker in a movie theatre, to an extended single take fight sequence in a stairwell that stands as a highlight for the genre in 2017.
What’s a pity is that the tension is broken whenever the characters chose to open their mouths to speak. There’s not a great deal that actually unfolds over the course of the runtime beyond key elements of plot, ticking away with a sad lack of pacing which makes most of the extended dialogue scenes a chore to pay attention too with dreary codenames and titles. Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay never feels like it ever comes alive to match the hyperactivity of the features look, and the backdrop of the collapse of the wall and the death-throw of the old world feels like text rather than subtext.
Less John Wick and more punk Bond at times, Atomic Blonde works when it's stripping down its characters in hand-to-hand combat and adorning itself with the atmosphere of its 80s setting and soundtrack cues – all of which feel well placed and freshly subversive. There’s chance taken that pays off regarding characterisation, and a colourful supporting cast, but it could have dispensed with the overly earnest storytelling.