Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella
Director: David Leitch
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: 1989, Berlin. The Wall still stands but things are changing. Into these final days of chaos prior to the Wall falling, Mi6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is tasked with hunting down a stolen list detailing hundreds of undercover agents. Facing enemies on all sides, she deals with double, triple and quadruple crosses not to mention violence at every turn.
James Bond, Jason Bourne, John Wick. The kick-ass cool as ice spy (well Wick is more hitman than spy) has always had a punchy name to match its punchy character. Atomic Blonde attempts to introduce a new killer to their ranks but unfortunately is sired with the hopelessly dull moniker of Lorraine Broughton! Fortunately for us and Lorraine she is played by the effortlessly cool Charlize Theron, even if the film she leads lets her stonking performance down somewhat.
Adapted from graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde is the solo turn from director David Leitch who stormed onto the scene co-directing Mr Wick’s first big screen slugfest. He proves to have some singularly effective action chops (leaving me hopeful for his next film, one Deadpool 2) but struggles when it comes to narrative clarity. Here is the part where I would try to capture the basics of its central story, but Atomic Blonde spends so much time attempting to convolute itself that trying to summarise is next to impossible. The broad strokes, as far as I can tell, are that its Berlin, 1989, the wall is on the verge of being torn down and subsequently tensions are at their highest across all parties involved. Into this mix steps Mi6 agent Broughton. Sent in to retrieve that most cinematic of objects, the McGuffin, this time in the form of a list detailing every major operative in the field. On arrival she meets British contact Percival, James McAvoy not exactly stretching himself as a crass impulsive womaniser and quite clearly up to no good.
After this point the film becomes a series of double, triple and quadruple crosses. Introducing players unnecessarily and becoming wildly unfocused in the process. Most are written with broad simplicity, save for Sofia Boutella as naive young French agent Delphine. Spying on Lorraine, she then makes contact in a steamy sensual encounter that dovetails into lesbian antics that would seem egregiously stuffed in by a horny male writer if it wasn’t for the believable chemistry between the two of them. The relationship does get pushed to the side in favour of the feverishly complicated story but helpfully wraps up in a effectively emotional payoff. Story issues are not helped much by the choppy structure. Leitch choosing to frame the tale within that age old convention of the hero explaining events to their superiors, this time in the form of John Goodman and Toby Jones’s bureaucratic interrogators. The consistent return to this setting, a cold sterile room suiting the cold sterile look of the whole film, makes for one or two funny asides but only works to create a distance from Lorraine and the overarching story.
All this must sound like I’m hating on Atomic Blonde but that is far from the truth, there is much to like. The Berlin setting is unique and evocatively captured, aided in no small measure by the brilliant late 80s soundtrack, with its use of foreign versions of popular songs over action scenes gracing them with a palpable energy. Leitch also continues the fine tradition of hardcore action he so well conveyed in John Wick. Although perhaps less action heavy than the trailers may suggest, there are still some bruising finely choreographed fight scenes. Shot with a clear sense of geography and full of neat little touches, such as the constant use of household objects as weapons, he also makes sure that Broughton, like her colleagues Bourne and Wick, never gets off easy. Theron suffering body blows that wince, cuts that run deep and an exhaustion that inevitably comes from facing off against multiple enemies. No more is this felt than in the films bravura central set-piece. Close to 10 mins and cleverly cut to feel like one long tracking shot, Theron fights a number of villains in a stairwell whilst trying to protect Eddie Marsan’s informant. Fighting across stairs, through people’s flats, and down onto the road for a stunningly captured car chase, it is breathless phenomenal filmmaking. Not least for the way Theron gets ever more out of breath and tired, usually these films suffer from the lack of fear that the lead will die, but here you genuinely feel that she may not make it out of this.
After such a wildly constructed and barnstorming sequence the film inevitably cannot match it heading into the final stretch. Once more introducing another double cross before a final revelation comes across clunkingly obvious and anticlimactic. I’m all for narratively complex films but Atomic Blonde mistakes complexity for sheer density. It leaves you bored rather than thrilled and that is never good when you’re trying to kick off a potential new franchise. The ace in the hole is Miss Theron though, and she is by far the main reason I’d desire to see more of this world. Fierce, intelligent, adaptive, sexy and compelling to watch, she owns the film with seeming ease. Always a hungry animalistic performer and here she is no different, diving into the fight scenes with an intensity few can match. Not afraid to lash in some vulnerabilities amidst all the chaos allows her to feel fully rounded rather than some efficient killing machine. It’s a shame the film around her isn’t as sharp as she is, but I’d be more than happy to see her kick some ass in further instalments. Lorraine Broughton may sound like a chartered accountant but Wick, Bond et al should watch their backs, there is a new fighter in town and she’s not going to let a thing like multiple syllables get in her way.
Verdict: Bruising action, unique setting and a formidable Charlize Theron cannot overcome a story that gets lost in its own double crosses. An underwhelming start for a cool new action heroine.