After watching a bit of Atomic Blonde footage in June, I figured this was going to be John Wick with Charlize Theron kicking ass — and I was on board.
After the film began, immediately did I realize this isn’t just John Wick; It’s a spy film with a concrete story — and Theron still kicks ass.
Atomic Blonde opens with former President Ronald Regan giving his famed speech calling for the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Fast-forward to November 1989 in Berlin, and we follow a frantic man (Sam Hargrave) presumably running from danger. The film flashes its first instance of painstaking brutality, with this man eventually being executed at point-blank range.
Fast-forward 10 days, and we get our first glimpse of Lorraine Broughton (Theron) in an ice bath, her body riddled with cuts, bruises and a black eye to boot. She lights up a cigarette and the camera pans to her face, which made me say to myself, “Ouch.”
Blonde‘s story isn’t as complex as other spy films: The CIA and British intelligence want “The List” after it was stolen from one of their own. This list is a collection of every spy and their identities. If sold and in the wrong hands, it could be catastrophic.
Theron and James McAvoy, who plays a drunk, humorous and sketchy MI6 agent named David Percival, become an uncanny duo throughout the film. Both are tasked to work together and find “The List” and a double-agent named “Satchel.” Both greatly contrast each other. McAvoy’s humorous, while Theron embodies a hardened nature. Theron’s gritty, calm, and collected, while McAvoy’s a ticking time bomb, erratic, but somehow efficient in getting the job done.
Both of these leads have chemistry on-screen that help keep the film feeling fresh and intriguing.
Outside of Theron and McAvoy, there’s a welcoming supporting cast of John Goodman, Toby Jones and Sofia Boutella (her performance makes you forget the abominable Mummy). Truth be told, there’s nothing entirely captivating with the supporting cast. They’re just … fine. Outside of the romance between one of our main characters and Boutella, who plays a naive French spy, the other roles feel weightless. They don’t take you out of the film and they don’t reel you in — luckily, Theron’s strong enough on her own to glue this film together.
Speaking of story once more, Atomic Blonde‘s spy tale, based on Antony Johnson’s novel The Coldest City, surprisingly had more depth than I anticipated. This isn’t a mindless tale of “spy versus spy.” Even with a plot that begins as predictable, there’s a concrete plot to follow by the third act. I was correctly guessing almost every beat of the story, which is generally easy-to-follow. This slowly crescendos, however, into twists and turns that made some audience members gasp. This is no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the spy thrills hold their own. My only gripe with the plot would be Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay often times flashing back to previous events, which felt cheap. Although, I understood: this kept casual moviegoers engaged while reminding those who have followed along that there are layers to this story.
Besides what we get on the surface, I keyed-in on the fight choreography, especially after learning Theron did 98 percent of her own stunts. There are two standout sequences during Blonde‘s nearly two-hour runtime, while other moments seemed a tad underwhelming, especially after seeing films like John Wick and The Raid. The film doesn’t rely solely on its fight scenes, and tends to focus on exposition after the halfway mark, as well. This was a bit of a surprise, again, to find layers to a film I figured would be Theron’s Wick. I reckon on second viewing I’ll have tempered my expectations and think more of those underwhelming sequences.
This isn’t your grandfather’s spy film, though, with plenty of provocative moments. There’s nudity, slow shots of Theron wiring herself with a microphone while in lingerie and sex. None of these moments took me out of the film; this gave the film flavor, and added to its no-nonsense attitude. Blonde doesn’t care about whether you have a weak stomach or not, either, with blood galore and skateboards to the head … literally.
On the technical front, director David Leitch (co-director on John Wick) played with neon blue, red and green colors (cinematographer Jonathan Sela did a hell of a job) while using an explosive soundtrack that set the tone. This is the 80s, full of a punk attitude, mind you. The synth beats, use of Queen and David Bowie — it just fit.
When the film isn’t punching you in the gut, the dialogue is laced with F-bombs and full of moxie, and these moments became more frequent down the road. The film lagged along ever-so slightly during the droughts of action, but luckily, Atomic Blonde doesn’t forget that this ain’t a conversational film and sends you right back into the action. This was a balance that worked better as the film progressed.
This isn’t your average popcorn summer film with cliché spy movie tropes — Theron brought her A-game and made us root for her throughout the film. Strap in and get ready for a ride through 1989 Berlin — you won’t regret it.
I attended an advanced screening of ‘Atomic Blonde’ for purposes of this review, thanks to Sly Fox Media and Universal Pictures ❤
‘Atomic Blonde’ is rated R, runs 1 hour and 55 minutes, and debuts in North American theaters on July 28, 2017.