Nothing is more fun than a good spy thriller. It is a genre so trite in its plot elements, yet so diverse in its tonal nuances. No two spy thrillers are ever the exact same; each one possesses its own unique personality. The same can be said about Atomic Blonde, a Cold War spy flick that noisily thrums to the cadence of ’80s synth-pop. Sparkling with neon lights and graffiti, Atomic Blonde makes an effort to stand out with its stylish, post-punk aesthetic.
But like an unprepared secret agent, Atomic Blonde is too preoccupied with its disguise to notice its messy paperwork.
Atomic Blonde kicks off in London as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is under interrogation by MI6 executive Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) after a failed mission in Berlin, days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Told in flashback, Lorraine recounts her past week as she is tasked with recovering the List, a piece of microfilm containing the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union.
Assisting Lorraine on her mission is David Percival (James McAvoy), a sly British agent stationed in Berlin. To quote a character from the movie, Percival has gone somewhat native. After spending years in Berlin, he moonlights as a black market dealer, selling goods like cassette tapes and cigarettes. Lorraine also encounters undercover French operative Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and later becomes romantically involved with her.
But as Lorraine is told in her mission briefing, “Trust no one.” Lorraine is also assigned the job of finding and killing a double agent codenamed Satchel, who has been selling British secrets to the Soviets. And upon being attacked as soon as she lands in Berlin, she quickly learns that trust will likely get her killed.
If you’ve watched any spy movie before, this all probably sounds familiar. Outside of its graceful fight choreography, Atomic Blonde borrows a lot of its aspects from other espionage films. It’s just another spy film set in the Cold War about chasing double agents and a mysterious MacGuffin.
Many critics have been comparing Theron’s Lorraine to James Bond. But Atomic Blonde is more of a cross between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Raid, as seen through the eyes of Nicholas Winding Refn. Under sharp neon lights, we are thrown headfirst into a “find the mole” mystery as our protagonist engages in hand-to-hand combat against an army of people.
They’ve even brought Tinker Tailor’s Toby Jones to play Lorraine’s superior, a bit of typecasting that I wholeheartedly welcome.
Much of the frantic energy of Atomic Blonde is owed to director David Leitch. As a prominent stunt coordinator and the uncredited co-director of John Wick, Leitch brings a keen eye for fluid fight scenes. While most action blockbusters cut on every single action, Atomic Blonde lets fight scenes draw out for as long as possible. The longest fight scene unfolds as Lorraine attempts to smuggle Stasi informant Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) across the Berlin Wall, but is cornered by a group of thugs on a staircase. Shooting the seven-minute fight scene as one (seemingly) continuous long take, the scene is both impressive and immersive.
Like John Wick, Atomic Blonde is also a pulpy potboiler helmed by a graceful lead actor who does her own stunts. Theron is very different from Keanu Reeves, however. With action roles in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Fate of the Furious, Theron brings a fierce intelligence to Lorraine. As Simon Abrams writes in his review, “Theron’s commanding performance is remarkable. Her take-no-bull body language and calculating stare give her character an intelligence and prove she’s the right person for the job.”
The only thing colder than her ice bathes is her steely-eyed glare.
But underneath the Fincher-esque blue-grey colour correction, you’ll see massive story and script problems. For a story about finding the traitor, Atomic Blonde’s eventual reveal is a major letdown. Outside of a clever plot twist at the end, the story is convoluted and unclear. This mostly has to do with its abysmal characterization. Aside from Lorraine and perhaps Percival, little effort goes into explaining what the characters want and why. Without proper character introductions, many names get lost in the cluttered mess of Atomic Blonde.
Wait, who is Gasciogne again? And who is Bakhtin? Have we met Bremovych yet?
Speaking of Bremovych (Roland Moller), he is supposedly the major antagonist of this spy film, a billionaire arms dealer in the same vein as other megalomaniac Bond villains. But being onscreen for no more than five minutes, Bremovych barely registers a presence.
There is a beauty to the conventional spy film formula. Everybody remembers the self-destructing tapes from Mission: Impossible. It’s more than just an exposition dump, it’s a plot device that helps the audience follow along. The same can be said about Bond’s briefing with M, or the villain’s lengthy monologue about his evil plan.
Yet in Atomic Blonde, the exposition is barely audible over the diegetic music. In fact, much of the dialogue is spoken in hushed voices, almost as if the film were embarrassed of its own words. It seems the filmmakers want to get as much mileage as they possibly can from the soundtrack they paid for. But as a result, the plot feels like an afterthought, a distraction from the music’s seductive flow.
In the end, this is what turns an otherwise fun movie into an incomprehensible one. Atomic Blonde only cares about looking cool, even if it doesn’t make sense. Knowing how the movie ends, one has to wonder why Lorraine goes through so much effort to acquire the List.
Perhaps Atomic Blonde is too smart for its own good. When the movie indirectly alludes to Machiavelli and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I couldn’t help but smile. But when Lorraine starts quoting from Machiavelli, the Easter egg loses its charm. In an action movie such as this, dialogue must be handled economically, not haphazardly used to make obscure references.
We don’t need to hear how Lorraine reads Machiavelli to know that she is smart. The way she outsmarts her enemies is evidence enough of her competence.
Atomic Blonde is, at times, a red-hot rush of adrenaline. It is another example of good fight choreography, something I hope Hollywood cinema learns to fully embrace. But in its mission to strike a different tone, the story fails to brief us on all of its objectives. The experience of watching a movie always begins with story comprehension. If the audience does not understand the plot, then it will not hold their attention, no matter how stylish the film is.
Lorraine was right; if Atomic Blonde just wanted to fight, it should’ve picked a different outfit.