I knew it was coming long before any of the action began to unfold. Atomic Blonde’s 15 minute fight scene that begins in an apartment stairwell and ends in the bottom of the Berlin River had been the spotlight of much media acclaim before it’s theatrical release. It’s brutal, balletic and cool with Charlize Theron picking apart KGB agents with such lethal force, I’ll never look at a hotplate the same way ever again. But it’s this extended fight scene that’s indicative of my overall problem with Atomic Blonde: out of a two hour run time, I only paid attention for 15 minutes.
Which is really a shame because there’s a lot of creative potential in Atomic Blonde. But a pointless story, underdeveloped characters and a distinct style over substance issue left me wanting more. I never cared about why Theron and her character, MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton was stabbing dudes in the face with a wine bottle opener. I never cared about why I shouldn’t trust James McAvoy's smarmy MI6 fixer. Most of the run time is tropey and predictable, which would have been perfectly fine if that’s the movie it wanted to be. But Atomic Blonde kept telling the audience it was something more. More than just a few action set pieces and the 15 minute fight scene, which in my opinion it really wasn’t
Atomic Blonde feels like a movie created from the mind of a hollywood obsessed with putting A-list celebrities in badass situations. You can almost imagine the pitch meeting: The type of movie where the protagonist is icy cool, capable of handling any dangerous situation. But we also have to have them beaten to a pulp but come out on top with a pile of dead bad guys around them so we can just how rugged the actor or actress is.
The most recent example of this would be the two John Wick movies, which were great narrative excuses for Keanu Reeves to murder people in creative, revenge-filled ways. But whereas John Wick felt compelling with just enough emotional tug to get on board for 90 minutes of senseless violence, Atomic Blonde falls victim to it’s own self imposed seriousness.
Early on we’re made to understand the mission that Theron is tasked with is dangerous, because Atomic Blonde is a spy movie and spy shit is dangerous. But at the same time, the soundtrack full of late 80s ear candy, is flamboyant, jubilant and anything but serious. Everything is lit in neon and a spray paint aesthetic is used to tell us where we are (East Berlin) and when the action takes place (1989). But remember this is a spy movie, so you know, be serious and shit.
It’s this clash of personalities—an attempt at the perfect spy games of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, mixed with the brutality of the John Wick or Jason Bourne—that didn’t work for me. And reading this review it sounds like I hated Atomic Blonde but that’s not at all true. I had a good time with this movie. The performances are fine (with John Goodman popping up briefly in all his Goodman glory) and it was well directed with the action fully in frame. Also Sofia Boutella of recent Mummy fame turns in a standout performance as a rookie french operative.
Maybe if Atomic Blonde had come out at another point in time I wouldn’t feel so strange about it. But as it stands, it feels like a response to movies audiences came away loving. And I wanted to love Atomic Blonde, all two hours of it. But I came away enjoying a breathtaking 15 minute scene that you can probably find on youtube right now.
If the rumor is true that David Leitch wants to come back for a second film, I’m totally on board for more Charlize Theron showing just how great of an action star she really is. But I wish she was in a better movie. One that demanded the attention of the viewer and actually delivered on a intense 90 minute experience.
The last thing i’ll note is one other portion of the film that grabbed my attention. In a fleeting moment towards the end, McAvoy gives a VO about the cold war ending, the Berlin wall coming down and what it all means for operatives like them. What is a world without secret lists, clandestine meetings and slights of hand? Without a need for people like them to exist? It’s a speech that tugged at something in me that I couldn’t fully understand leaving the theatre. But later at dinner, I realized McAvoy's speech was what I wanted this entire movie to be: a violent waxing of philosophical ethics put to the beat of 99 Red Balloons.
Atomic Blonde : An okay spy flick with some great action set pieces, that actually has me excited for the idea of a sequel. Take your partner or friend to a cheap Tuesday viewing of this one.