Atomic Blonde (2017) Directed by David Leitch. With Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones and John Goodman.
Directed by David Leitch, the man co-responsible for John Wick, Atomic Blonde is a spy-thriller set on the eve of the fall of the Berlin wall. Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, it stars Charlize Theron as a sexy undercover operative, whose mission is to locate a secretive list and to untangle some increasingly tedious plot entanglements.
Jonathan Sela’s cinematography (also John Wick) melds a junky, neon-lit colour palette with smoky ashtrays, nice architecture and cold, grey stone. There’s an abundance of ’80’s technology and regular intervals of carefully selected pop music. It gives the effect of watching an MTV spy thriller – we even see a clip of VJ Kurt Loder questioning the plagiarism of sampling in popular music. We see Charlize Theron in her hotel room, surrounded by the glow of pink and blue fluorescence. It’s all so framed and determinedly stylish, that it begins to feel like that’s all the movie has.
That same voguish style makes it feel like a sister piece to John Wick, sans a willingness to occasionally mock itself. But then, there’s a payoff – the action in Atomic Blonde is more perilous than John Wick, with Theron engaged in grueling bouts of hand-to-hand combat with assailants wielding more brute force than herself. With that, she’s called to use every advantage she can gain, often meaning whatever implement might be to hand. There are two action set-pieces that are so pulsating in the way they are staged and shot, that the movie outguns many of its peers on their existence alone. Indeed, Theron is a match for any contemporary male action star, but make no mistake, she’s severely put through her paces.
Considering how accomplished the set-pieces are, it’s a shame to feel a sense of semi-detachment from the spy plot, which isn’t anywhere near as engaging as the breathtaking explosions of action orbiting it. There’s dry talk of double agents with serious old men in rooms being very serious about things that add up to not much. It isn’t particularly clever or involving and at times, dry tedium sets in. Seasoned pros like Toby Jones and John Goodman slip in and out of scenes, spouting exposition dialogue, little of which seems to count.
James McAvoy is guilty of ever-so-slightly overcompensating – he plays a pivotal character in a mostly forgettable role. Enjoy him as I occasionally do, I also find a brash insincerity to McAvoy’s screen presence, and it often feels like he’s the go-to guy for roles of annoyingly alpha male blokey-blokes. The same goes for his turn in Atomic Blonde.
It’s a good thing that Theron is incredible. Now in her 40’s, she’s as stunning as ever, carrying a wearied sense of discordance with the world she’s forced to live in. She smokes heavily and drinks triple measures of vodka to mask her external and internal pain. We learn little about her, other than her ice-cool veneer is armor against getting killed. At times, she’s like a hybrid of James Bond and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct – all cigarettes, perfect cheekbones and cool. She’s styled to the nines; thigh-length leather boots, sexy trench coats, patent red stilettos – she’d look equally at home on the catwalks of Milan as she adeptly crunches bones on dusty old stairwells. In short, Theron is the reason to see the film, sadly though, she’s the only reason.