Usually, the only time a cold war espionage movie becomes fast-paced is when someone gets gunned down by a silencer. This is not the case in Atomic Blonde, a spy thriller with a ’80s retro vibe. It’s one of the coolest action movies of the year. And I’ll say this: if Charlize Theron turned up in the old cold war films, those men in trench coats would run for their lives.
Theron is the kick-ass lead and every close-up of her face is either a work of art or a punch in the guts. If it wasn’t for Theron, Atomic Blonde would be quite forgettable. Her performance is so commanding. She single-handedly ignites the action scenes, which are pulpy and stylised. Her character is Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to find a lost list of secret agents.
The story is in a frame narrative. In other words, it’s one big flashback. Lorrain recounts the events of her mission to MI6 executives. Throughout, the film switches from her retelling to the interview room, and the effect is quite jarring. I see it as the reason Atomic Blonde struggles to find its footing early on. It makes the story bloated and overcomplicated. But studying the plot is a waste of time because the plot isn’t important here – it’s all about the style.
From the neon lights and disco mood to the breakneck action, everything about the film screams style. It’s like the love child of a Nicholas Winding Refn movie (The Neon Demon, Drive) and an action blockbuster. Lorrain herself is a mix of John Wick and Jason Bourne, but she’s not an unstoppable force.
She’s always up against bigger foes, male opponents that go all out. The scenes where she fights men never read as misogyny, though, because Theron is such a dominant presence and not victimised. However, she’s not any more realistic than the iconic action heroes. She’s still the archetypal spy: cool, cold and ruthless.
As soon as you reach the second half of the film, you know what to expect, but you’re complicit in every scene. You’ll be grinning from ear to ear, I’m sure. It proper gives you a good time. Lorrain’s fellow secret agent Percival (James McAvoy) is also involved in the action. This shady bloke has his own agendas which complicate matters. Again, McAvoy is at the peak of his powers, channelling the same rage as he did in 2013’s Filth. (Great film by the way!)
Atomic Blond gives Theron everything to do with messy plotting, yet it still succeeds as an action movie. Your enjoyment of it might depend on what you find entertaining. It doesn’t have the substance of a traditional spy thriller, but it’s more brutal than any Bond movie.
A few tweaks could have made Atomic Blonde even better. It seems the director wanted to pack in as many threats and high stakes as possible, a coherent plot became an afterthought.
But does it even matter in the end? It’s such a fun blast that you almost don’t care about plot devices. You won’t find another spy thriller as stylish as this. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a sequel!
Director: David Leitch
Writers: Kurt Johnstad (screenplay), Anthony Johnston (based on the graphic novel by)
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Bill Skarsgard, Toby Jones
Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 115 minutes.