Watching Atomic Blonde is like watching two very-different movies; and not necessarily in a good way. At times, it’s a rollicking, thrilling, brutal rollercoaster through the punk heart of a divided city; at others, it’s a flaccid, bland, and bloodless exercise in blockbuster beige.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to track down the whereabouts of a volatile list of secret agents: a list last held by her murdered former lover. It’s 1989, and her main contact in the divided city has ‘gone native’. Percival (James McAvoy) has gotten a little too into the techno, drugs, and fashion for the bigwigs to handle – and, with his dubious loyalties, Lorraine soon finds herself drawn into a web of paranoia and confusion.
It’s structured in a very peculiar way that suggests, as unlikely as this may be given David Leitch’s past credentials, a production u-turn. For roughly the first 40 minutes to an hour, Atomic Blonde surfs along in the most superficial style. The plot seems weak and predictable (dramatic irony is really adversely applied here), the characters thin, and the pacing slow. Even the violence, which should have been incredible, is completely powerless. Not only are fight scenes few and far between, but they’re bloodless and feel staged. Whenever Theron makes fist-to-face contact, we see the punches, we see the witless goons fall to the ground, and we hear a smack/crack noise, but it looks incredibly false – it looks like a stage punch. People are shot in the head without the slightest mark, and zero injury detail is visible onscreen. This powerlessness – this explicit will to dial back the ‘relentless’ factor by a good few notches – suggests to me that the original goal of Atomic Blonde was a pg-13/12a one.
And then, out of nowhere, we’re treated to an extended no-holds-barred, one-take fight scene/car chase; in which Broughton both receives and gives a brutal, gory beating to around seven or eight people through the dilapidated hallways and streets of East Berlin. It comes totally left field: naturalistic, authentic, wincingly violent, and teeth-grittingly intense. To say this is the best scene in the film would be an understatement – it would be the best scene in many movies – but it also marks a distinct change in the way Leitch tells his story. All of a sudden, the violence is now accompanied by ultra-slow-mo explosions of brain matter and intestine; the visuals work a lot better with the music; and the plot dazzles. Atomic Blonde pulls the rug straight out from under our feet when we least expect it, and follows that up by pulling out the floorboards, then collapsing the whole damn house altogether.
It’s a stunning, bruising third act, bolstered by pulsating neon and retro synth. I just wished Leitch hadn’t spent 40 minutes pretending nothing was up: sure, the numerous rapid fire twists are fun and pulpy – but perhaps a better movie would have spread these out over the runtime.
And indeed, this is where most comparisons with John Wick fall flat. Keanu Reeves played a skilled assassin who headshots everyone he comes in contact with. Throughout the two films in the series so far, he’s remained relatively unscathed in taking down hundreds of master-killers and henchmen during relentless scenes that last upwards of 20 minutes. Atomic Blonde, however, concerns a protagonist who has realistic skills: a spy who is able to take out 8 people in the space of 10 minutes, but who sustains brutal injuries as a result. It’s a film that, despite its hyper-stylised 80s Berlin aesthetic, feels reasonably realistic as opposed to Wick’s cultish assassin organisation. Indeed, the only similarities between them seem to be that both are lit well, and feature talented killers as the main character (which, to be honest, could link thousands of films).
Of course, as you can imagine, style is one thing that Atomic Blonde never lacks. It’s not just the soundtrack (come on guys, it has ‘Cat People’ in it, doesn’t get any better than that), but the colour palette is insanely beautiful. There’s a lot of pink, green, and blue – in a day-glo psychedelic poster sorta way (more like magenta, lime, and cyan). Theron’s pale complexion, plus her snow-white hair (it’s in the name folks) make for a perfect canvas on which Leitch paints a shimmering, LSD-esque tapestry of nightclub ambience, industrial dilapidation, and uber-expensive hotel rooms. It’s quite something to behold, and, especially in it’s last ten minutes (some of which is set to a slow-mo rendition of ’99 Luftabloons’) the style really comes into its own as The Cold War reaches it’s dying breaths.
Acting wise, both Theron and McAvoy struggle to maintain English accents; however both also give immensely impressive physical performances, especially Theron who, of course, we already know is a certified badass. And, indeed, there’s some great support from John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella (among others). The script is a little cringeworthy at moments, but you’re not coming to the film for the dialogue, so I suppose we can forgive it. Part of me wants to leave the world of Atomic Blonde alone, now that we’ve had this self-contained story, but another part of me reckons that the character of Lorraine Broughton probably has a lot more to give.
Because this is how you do awesome female protagonists. You don’t have them bitching about ‘the patriarchy’; you don’t have them constantly asserting how ‘strong and independent’ they are; you don’t justify their presence based on their sex. Lorraine Broughton is a smart, sexy, and skilled character; and Theron totally nails the role because it’s a real role – not a piece of Machiavellian publicity stunting disguised as one.
Stylish and pulpy, Atomic Blonde has enough of a pulsing techno heart to pull audiences through the oddly sanitised murk of its first 40 minutes, before unloading in an unforgiving barrage of bullets and martial arts that’ll please even the most discerning action fan. Abandoning any sense of realism or believability, Leitch’s cold-war fantasy fills the screen with buzzing neon beauty, foot-tapping tracks, and a crazy third act that repeatedly turns the narrative on its head.
Which way is up? By the end of Atomic Blonde, I didn’t really know. But one thing I did know, as Percival says, ‘I fucking love Berlin’.
Featured image: Variety.