Editor’s Notes: Atomic Blonde opens in wide theatrical release today, July 28th.
To frame or not to frame: That was the question facing screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300: Rise of an Empire, Act of Valor, 300) and stunt-coordinator-turned-director David Leitch (John Wick) faced when they decided to collaborate on Atomic Blonde, an end-of-the-Cold-War action-thriller based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel, “The Coldest City.” The “frame” in “to frame or not to frame” isn’t a reference to a plot-driven double- or triple-cross – though, as always where Cold War spy-thrillers are involved, double- and triple-crosses are never too far behind, usually when we most expect them – but to the dubious decision to frame the action in Atomic Blonde through a film-long interrogation scene involving the title character, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), her MI-6 boss, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), and a CIA officer, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), as she teases out a plot involving predictable genre clichés, including, but not limited to, a comprehensive list of undercover Western spies operating in Western and Eastern Europe that, in the wrong hands, could supposedly prolong the Cold War by another four decades.
. . . it’s in the action scenes – scored to a thematically or narratively ‘80s synth-pop tune – that Atomic Blonde finds its figurative and literal footing.
That didn’t happen, of course. The Cold War effectively ended in 1989 with the literal dismemberment of the Berlin Wall, but to Broughton and the characters that enter and exit her path, sometimes peacefully, but more often violently, the end of the Cold War is more of a hash-filled pipe dream than potential reality. Broughton’s handlers send her to Berlin to both recover the list of undercover spies and uncover the truth about the murder of a British spy (not coincidentally Broughton’s former lover). Before she can go into Jane Blonde mode, though, men ostensibly sent to ferry her to her Berlin contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), try to take her out. They fail, of course, in the first of several well choreographed bone-crushing, tendon-snapping action scenes. When she wakes away from the scene of the crime, two men are dead and the other’s unconscious. Broughton’s spy skills might need work, but not her close-combat skills. In her hands, a stiletto heel can incapacitate a man (or worse) while a well-placed karate chop to the neck can cause a driver to upend his car on an embankment.
With Percival, the unsupervised station-chief-in-name-only, an MI-6 spy who seems to have “native” or worse, “feral,” Broughton begins the search for the still missing list. Percival, however, proves to be even less trustworthy than he looks. He has an agenda or two of his own and he refuses to share said agenda(s) with Broughton, leaving her a spy who can’t get out of the cold (i.e., alone, all but abandoned) to find her way in a divided Berlin. She briefly takes a lover, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), a newbie French spy tasked with following Brougton’s movements in West Berlin. (Spoiler alert: Their romantic interactions are handled with minimal prurience or male-centered voyeurism, a not insignificant plus in a film written and directed by men.) A trip to East Berlin and an eager-to-defect Stasi agent (Eddie Marsan) who claims he’s memorized the list of undercover agents proves perilous to Broughton’s health, but not before she engages in an 7-minute fight scene in a staircase against the bane of spy heroes everywhere: A not-quite-endless supply of disposable henchmen.
Theron’s fighting style is looser, less clean, rougher than Keanu Reeves’ style in the John Wick films, but what Atomic Blonde loses in grace points, it gains them back through naturalism and realism.
Not surprisingly, it’s in the action scenes – scored to a thematically or narratively ‘80s synth-pop tune – that Atomic Blonde finds its figurative and literal footing. Leitch’s years as a stunt coordinator serve him especially well during the crisply shot and edited fight scenes. It helps, of course, that the ever-game Theron did many, if not most of her stunts after months of prep and training. Keeping the stunt doubles to a minimum and allowing the camera to longer or show Theron’s face during the fight scenes aids moviegoers immeasurably with that whole verisimilitude thing. Theron’s fighting style is looser, less clean, rougher than Keanu Reeves’ style in the John Wick films, but what Atomic Blonde loses in grace points, it gains them back through naturalism and realism. The centerpiece throwdown stops and starts repeatedly, allowing Theron’s Broughton and her opponent a chance to catch their breaths or let the adrenaline surge into their bodies to block the pain of any number of body and head blows.
Unfortunately, there’s a messy, convoluted story to tell too and it’s a familiar one. Even with the combo of dirt, grime, and neon of ‘80s-era Berlin as a backdrop and periodic fight scenes, Atomic Blonde can’t – and doesn’t – succeed on hyper-cool style alone. Mixing John Wick-inspired combat with John le Carré skullduggery isn’t fatal to Atomic Blonde’s modest ambitions, but it’s close, especially when Leitch and Johnstad periodically interrupt the central plot for Broughton’s interrogation. The interrogation scenes not only confirm Broughton’s survival (a near given), but even worse, they essentially function as momentum stoppers. Practically every time Atomic Blonde kicks into reasonably high gear plot wise, Leitch and Johnstad cut away to Broughton, the two men across the table from her, and her boss sitting behind a one-way mirror. Eventually, the interrogation scenes start to feel like they’ve been lifted, intentionally as homage or unintentionally for the coolness factor, from a late ‘80s film with a similar premise. Short answer: Correct, but to say more would be to give away a major third-act plot twist that will catch some moviegoers by surprise. Twist or not, it still feels like a cheap plot device (because ultimately it is).
Mixing John Wick-inspired combat with John le Carré skullduggery isn’t fatal to Atomic Blonde’s modest ambitions, but it’s close.