‘Atomic Blonde’ Review
David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on John Wick and now in Atomic Blonde, a heavily promoted, style-over-substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.
Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.
With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall,” the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series The Americans, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Three Days of the Condor. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generating another fight scene for Lorraine.
Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (Mad Max: Fury Road, North Country, Monster) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.
This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of Split) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.
Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.
A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever.