Atomic Blonde has two things going for it: a charismatic lead and a gifted director. Fortunately, those are the two most essential elements in a film such as this. They’re more than enough to compensate for the fact that the story isn’t especially gripping and the supporting cast is somewhat underutilized. That being said, one can’t help but wonder what this might’ve been with a bit more tweaking. At its best, Atomic Blonde ranks alongside the best action flicks of the decade. On the whole, though, it’s just solid summer escapism with several kickass moments.
The movie is set in 1989 just as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse (Insert Donald Trump joke here). When an undercover operative is killed, MI6 sends in one of their top agents. Charlize Theron overflows the screen with kinetic energy as Lorraine Broughton, a super spy that’ll leave behind a trail of dead bodies with or without a license to kill. Her mission is to track down a list of double agents that are escaping to the West. Along the way, she is forced to team up with James McAvoy’s David Percival, a hard-hitting Berlin station chief. There’s even time for a little romance as Lorraine shacks up with a French agent named Delphine (Sofia Boutella). While these side characters are serviceable, Lorraine easily stands out above all the rest.
Ever since portraying Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron has become Hollywood’s most sought-after female action star. She was a highlight in The Fate of the Furious and there’s even something of a campaign for her to play the next James Bond. In many respects, her performance in Atomic Blonde feels like an audition for 007. Theron has many of Daniel Craig’s qualities: fearless, stoic, poised, elegant, and of course blonde. She’s what gives this movie a beating heart and it wouldn’t be surprising if the studio tried to build a franchise around her character.
It also helps that Theron is given a strong filmmaker to work with. While David Leitch got his start in the stunt department, he’s become one of our most promising action directors since developing John Wick with Chad Stahelski. Atomic Blonde has all the ingredients that made the later film so refreshing: slick editing, stylish cinematography, bracing fight choreography, and stunts that make you feel every punch. The soundtrack is also worth picking up. It might be difficult since both films take place in different time periods, but a John Wick and Lorraine Broughton crossover sounds like winning combination.
However, John Wick had the benefit of keeping the motivation simple. It was a revenge story about an assassin that wanted payback after his dog’s death. Atomic Blonde is much more twisty and convoluted, which can slow down the action at times. The film frequently shifts from the past and present where Lorraine is telling her tale to a couple agents played by John Goodman and Toby Jones. Every time the characters start talking or explaining the plot, though, we just want to get back to the chases and shootouts. Thankfully, another stellar set piece is always waiting around the corner, giving the audience what they paid for.