During the last days of the Cold War, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to ascertain the location of an important watch that secretly contains a list of many undercover agents’ secret identities. Teaming up with Berlin-based agent David Perceival (James McAvoy), Lorraine must defend herself against enemy parties who also seek the list while also uncovering the identity of a rogue agent known as “Satchel”.
In the leading role of Lorraine Broughton, Charlize Theron (apparently dialling down her Arrested Development English accent!) is a more than capable lead, as you’d expect from her by now; she is very often cool, calm and collected and she throws herself into the fight scenes very well, her physical commitment is surely admirable. But it’s a shame that her character isn’t actually that interesting; Lorraine is a bit of a blank slate, a little one-note and is primarily there to be the kick-ass female lead, especially fond of ice baths, drinking, throwing around a few random f-bombs and cockily smoking a cigarette. The film’s finale allows us certain answers as to who she actually is, and keeping her as an enigma allows for a certain sense of mystery, but overall Lorraine is a thinly written character and besides fighting tons of bad guys, there really isn’t that much to her.
Theron’s co-lead James McAvoy fares better, as David Perceival is just that bit more fascinating and genuinely enigmatic. Throughout Atomic Blonde, there is a definite question as to whether he’s a double agent or not and McAvoy’s brilliantly nuanced performance constantly keeps us guessing as to whether he’s on the level or not; he is able to come across as both a knowledgeable ally and a hidden threat, keeping tabs on Lorraine and possibly working his way towards the pivotal list. McAvoy is incredibly magnetic as the swaggering, cocksure Perceival, stealing every scene that he’s in and engaging in plenty of witty banter with Theron, the two of them working together really well.
The rest of the cast does well with the material and in particular, Toby Jones and John Goodman are great as the interrogating MI6/CIA agents and it’s always good to see Sofia Boutella in yet another big screen outing. As the inexperienced French operative, she’s a fine ally, sharing some intriguing chemistry with Lorraine but ultimately, she’s a Bond girl: an alluring fellow agent for our spy protagonist to . . . get with. (I mean, I know Charlize Theron is essentially James Bond, and Bond always gets his girl, but daaaamn!)
Story wise, Atomic Blonde has all the tropes of a common Cold War spy thriller, with spies, double agents, a Maguffin list of operatives, shootouts, fist fights, car chases, secret recordings and agency debriefings, while also mixing in a bit of Bond, Bourne and a few graphic novel elements, which makes things a bit more innovative. But despite an early promise that this film definitely won’t be your typical Cold War spy thriller, at the end of the day it actually is; besides the John Wick style fight scenes (I’m guessing. Never saw it.), and exuberant characters, it all plays out in a fairly predictable manner and will unfortunately leave certain viewers quite bored and unsatisfied. The plot is easy enough to follow (re-watching the Cold War-set German series Deutchland 83 turned out to be a massive help for me), not going too far with the inescapable twists and turns, but Atomic Blonde perhaps carries on for one twist too many and by the end, a few too many questions are left unanswered and it may just be too much of a struggle to figure out just what Lorraine’s main motivation was all along.
The film does indeed have a pacing problem as it practically stays on the same level throughout, telling the Cold War spy story about recovering an important list and occasionally breaking it all up with a random fight or gratuitous sex scene. The problem is that these moments are too few and far between and although the story developments keep coming, the film eventually becomes a bit monotonous and repetitive and we begin to realise that the main narrative is a little dry and contains all the usual twists and turns that you’d expect from a film like this. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough oomph or pizzazz and the film comes up a bit short in the thrill stakes.
But as you might expect, the fight choreography is slick and technically proficient; Atomic Blonde doesn’t really boast many showstopping scenes, nothing amazing or extraordinary, but the fighting is appropriately brutal and the accompanying sound design/editing is efficient, letting us hear and feel every punch, especially in the much talked about stairwell scene – a continuous long take, it is directed expertly and is refreshingly inventive.
Atomic Blonde also has an expansive, era-specific jukebox soundtrack, with artists like Depeche Mode, Nena, The Clash and Queen & David Bowie being included, but unfortunately, music is overused in this film. A track is placed in every other scene and after a while, this becomes annoyingly intrusive and it is all too much, a hindrance to the film. And elsewhere, the costume and production is quite good but the film can be a bit too drab at times, though with a film set in the Cold War, that’s to be expected somewhat. The use of neon graffiti for the on-screen text, informing us of the locations, is an original touch though and the design of the opening/closing credits is pretty neat.