TL;DR – Atomic Blonde is a technically brilliant film, but unfortunately the story does not quite live up to the rest of it
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
So I have a pitch for you: we have an MI6 agent who romps through Berlin in the closing days before the Wall falls, they take down Soviet goons, drink vodka, seduce foreign intelligence agents, whilst acting condescendingly toward their superiors. Oh and no this is not a missed Bond entry during its Dalton-Brosnan hiatus, oh and the MI6 agent is played by Charlize Theron, it’s an interesting pitch, you have to at least give it that. However, while this pitch is interesting, Atomic Blonde is a very peculiar film, because it has a lot of things that really work for it, but it also has some other issues that really hold it back. So let’s jump in and discover the underworld of Berlin in the late 1980s, but beware there is at least one David Hasselhoff reference in your near future.
So to set the scene, it is in the dying days of the Cold War, though a quick aside, the end of the Cold War is better marked with the collapse of the Soviet Union, than the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I digress. Time is not on the side of the East German government as the people begin their downfall of the autocratic regime. However, this is still a very tense time and the smallest spark could ignite a war, like say a British MI6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) agent getting killed by a rogue KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a watch that contains the names of undercover agents in Berlin on both sides of the conflict. Jump cut to Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) covered with bruises and emerging from an ice bath ten days later. She walks to the MI6 headquarters and we learn that she is to be debriefed by her boss Eric (Toby Jones), a CIA representative Emmett (John Goodman), while the Chief of MI6 (James Faulkner) watches from behind the glass. It is here that we realise that all hell broke loose during those last ten days when Lorraine went to visit Berlin also the MI6 head in the city David Percival (James McAvoy), and chased by friend and foe alike, like Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).
One thing is really clear straight from the start is that Atomic Blonde has a very particular style, on which it double downs on throughout the film, which means that when it works it is fantastic, but when it doesn’t it’s just perplexing. One area where it really works is the way music interacts with the action sequences, it speeds up and slows down, increases with volume with the intensity of the conflict, and then drops away completely. This creates an emersion within the fight that you don’t really notice until it is missing. On the other side, we have all the title cards which are presented like a stencilled spray paint on the side of a building. While it is an interesting art style, it doesn’t connect with the film in any way, so instead of being an interesting choice, it starts to become jarring.
It is without a doubt that one of the best features of Atomic Blonde is the action sequences, and they are so good I almost recommend the film for them alone. Now it should come as no surprise that David Leitch is good at filming action, given his extensive career as a stuntman and coordinator. Interestingly while he has been a second unit director on a lot of projects like Civil War (review), and helped out directing John Wick (review), Atomic Blonde is his first solo directing job, but you would not know it was his first. Indeed it is completely remarkable just how much he shows with only a $30 million budget. Where this is shown the best is in what might be a 15-minute single take shot escape through the streets of East Berlin, I’m not sure of the exact time because I didn’t notice right away. Now to be clear it is not one long single shot, it is just presented as one, which by no means takes away from the amazing craft you see on the screen. As well as this it should also not a big surprise to see that Charlize Theron is a great action start, we’ve seen her show this in films before like Fury Road (review), however, it is clear that she must have put in weeks, if not months of training to be able to pull off some of these sequences and make it work. Indeed there is one point where Lorraine puts on a sort of mask before engaging with some police, to which I thought ‘that was a clever way of hiding the use of a stunt double’ until the camera pans in and she pulls down the make to show it was her during the sequence. In Atomic Blonde you feel the hits, each one, and Lorraine gets hurt, rather than being a walking bullet sponge that is the norm these days. I’ve just scratched the surface here with the actions but it is really wonderful to see, and it is such a departure from the cut heavy films that we see all the time.
So one area where Atomic Blonde falls down a little is the story, which while being ok, just does not live up to everything else that is happening. So since we are discussing the story there may be [SPOILERS] here that you may wish to avoid if you have not seen the film yet. So Atomic Blonde’s story is presented ‘In medias res’ which is a Latin term to describe a narrative where you jump straight into the middle of the action. You have probably seen this multiple times on TV shows where the show opens on the hero tied up with a gun pointed at his head, we pan into their face and then the show jump cuts and we see our hero fine as day with the ‘three days earlier’ title card placed underneath. Personally, I’ve never really been a fan of this kind of literary technique, but here in Atomic Blonde we don’t jump into the middle of the action, we jump into the end. This is the first issue because we know for a fact that Lorraine survives to the end, also it immediately makes you raise the question as to why other characters are missing. This greatly undercuts the tension of the film, even if it does lead to some amusing moments in the debriefing. As well as this, there is a real lake of character motivations in the film. Why did Yuri not hand the info back into the Soviets? Why does David act the way he does?, Why are Lorraine’s bosses acting the way they are? And the list goes on.
As well as the lack of tension and character motivations, there is also simply a lack of depth to the story, almost like it is only there to move people from one action set piece to another. The film tries to cover this by focusing more on titration at times, but it is still there. This is compounded by some pacing issues which means the film takes a bit to get going, and on the flip side, it takes too long to reach its conclusion. All of this leads to the ending of the film, and if you ignored my previous [SPOILER] warning, then can I highly suggest you skip this next paragraph if you have not seen the film. So the film ends on two big reveals, the first is that Lorraine is actually the double agent people had been warned of and thus it is implied that she has been killing people to cover this up. This could have been one of those moments in cinema which catches you off guard, and immediately makes you want to go back to see if there were any clues that you missed, instead, you are sitting there going ‘that does not fit with what we have just seen this character do. On top of this, we have barely any time to think about it before it all changes again, to another ending just as contrived.
In the end, there is a lot about Atomic Blonde that I really liked, it’s just a pity that the story held it back. So can I recommend Atomic Blonde, yes and no. If you like filmmaking, or good action films then yes of course, if you are someone that needs a strong narrative in their films then this might be a problem for you, but did I mention there is a 15 minute ‘single’ take in this movie, it is worth the price of admission for that alone.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Atomic Blonde
Directed by – David Leitch
Screenplay by – Kurt Johnstad
Based on – The Coldest City by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart
Music by – Tyler Bates
Cinematography by – Jonathan Sela
Edited by – Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir
Starring – Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sam Hargrave, Eddie Marsan, Bill Skarsgård, James Faulkner & Jóhannes Jóhannesson, Roland Møller
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: R; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R