“Atomic Blonde” Review: Action Movie Has Its Pleasures But Charlize Theron Deserves Better


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Charlize Theron has more than established her action movie bonafides.

Having interviewed her, I am relatively sure that I would not like to take a punch from Ms. Theron. She’s tall, she’s got a coiled, muscular build, and she has a dancer’s sense of her own body. When she is onscreen, she is acutely aware of the camera and her relationship with it, which is valuable for an action star. There is no doubt watching that she is the right person for the .

It’s just not the right movie.

Taken as a whole, Atomic Blonde is a fairly forgettable affair. It does, however, hold the distinction of being the ten-millionth spy film in which people chase around a list of “all the spies in the whole world.” It’s a very familiar plot device wrapped in a very sleek package, and how you respond to it will largely depend on the degree to which you share the fetishes that director David Leitch indulges so fully here. If you’ve always wanted to see Charlize Theron kick the hell out of dudes to the sound of George Michael singing “Father Figure,” then you are in luck.

As I said, there’s no doubt that Theron is as good a fit here as Lorraine Broughton as Keanu Reeves is for John Wick. There’s a reason why Wick is the comparison that matters here, far more than James Bond. John Wick was directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and part of why it’s so great is because they both came from a stunt background and brought storytelling chops to the table along with a knowledge of how to design and shoot action for maximum impact. In their films, action is not a break from story and character; it is story and character, and it is shot with a clarity that allows you to follow every move, every beat. Coming after a decade or so of Bourne-inspired shaky-cam madness, it felt quietly revolutionary. Stahelski directed the second Wick while Leitch moved on to this, and it feels like they’re running parallel now, turning out twice as much material but in a very similar voice. The difference is who is writing for them, and that’s where Atomic Blonde falls apart for me.

The best choice they make is the setting for the story. Lorraine is sent into Berlin to make contact with a local bureau chief so they can retrieve a stolen list of spies. It just happens to be at the moment that the Berlin Wall is coming down in 1989, and everything about that moment in the film is terrific. I love the setting. I love the way they use that as an opportunity to wallpaper the movie with a certain kind of ‘80s song. I’m perfectly happy to sit in a theater watching Theron wreck her way across the end of the Cold War while listening to Ministry and Depeche Mode.

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The second best choice they make is in allowing there to be a real human toll on Lorraine over the course of the movie. She doesn’t shrug anything off. She’s not a superhero. She does outrageous, insane stuff in the film, but there are moments in every fight where she takes a hit and it dazes her or stops her or puts her down for a moment. All of the fighters are presented as human, and while they are all obviously impeccably trained stuntmen working their way through immaculately choreographed fights, it’s beautiful stuff and thrilling to watch. It hurts. After every fight, Lorraine has to take stock, and we see the bruises and the cuts piling up. We see what she has to do to disguise them. It is the kind of choice that gives an actor room to build a real human being in the midst of what is otherwise a pretty simplistic comic book spy movie.

James McAvoy has a grand time as David Percival, the Berlin bureau chief who may or may not be playing Lorraine for a fool from the moment she lands in the city. She’s supposed to be undercover, but she’s met at the airport by the KGB, so that seems like a lost cause. Much of what unfolds is told through flashback as Lorraine testifies in front of Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), a debriefing that is watched with intent by Chief “C” (James Faulkner), who sent Lorraine to Berlin in the first place. She is playing all three of them the entire time they’re in that room, and they try to play what she’s telling them against what you’re watching, and if it was clever in the way that something like The Usual Suspects is clever, that could be fun. It’s pretty straightforward, though. There are no surprises here for anyone who loves the genre.

There are plenty of pleasures, though. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed watching a good deal of Atomic Blonde. Jonathan Sela’s photography is stylish and carefully considered during those moments when Lorraine is forced to erupt into action. Elisabet Ronaldsdóttir makes the cuts hurt, using them to enhance the impact, not to hide the actors or the stuntmen. There are several terrific sequences where all this tradecraft comes together perfectly. The film tries to throw narrative twists at you, but the narrative is so matter-of-fact that they never really connect as twists. And as far as franchise-building goes, I guess we could see more of these films, but there’s no real narrative hook that makes me want to see this particular character again. Theron, on the other hand, deserves better. Warner Bros. should greenlight that Furiosa movie as soon as possible and send her back out into the wasteland.

In a year that has seen an upending of traditional ideas about what audiences want, here’s hoping audiences reward Theron for the ferocious work she does, and that Leitch is able to make Deadpool 2 into something even more insane and percussive than the first one. More than anything, Atomic Blonde plays like a demo reel of just how ready everyone involved is to make something great, a preview for a movie I wish I’d seen.


Rated:  R
Running time: 115 minutes

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1 Comment

  1. This movie is lean, sleek and stylish. Charlize completely owns this character in what is easily one of her defining roles. McWeeney unequivocally loved WONDER WOMAN, BABY DRIVER and DUNKIRK, yet has reservations with this. This is a summer action movie for adults that leaves all of those films chocking on its dust.

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