TL; DR(eview) - Atomic Blonde continues Charlize Theron’s run of strong, stoic female badasses (a la Mad Max: Fury Road). An standard spy movie plot elevated by some excellent action sequences and enjoyable performances.
Atomic Blonde stars Charlize Theron as MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton sent into Berlin to recover compromising information just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A list of agent identities has gone missing and Broughton has been tasked with rendezvousing James McAvoy’s David Percival, another agent who has been undercover heading up the investigation of this list.
Given the framework of the film involves Broughton being debriefed after the mission by her superior Eric Gray and an allied CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (Toby Jones and John Goodman, respectively), the stakes are a little deflated. Clearly, Broughton survives so there’s never any significant threat to her when she’s onscreen. But the existence of a double agent’s identity on the list muddles up everyone’s allegiances. The film constantly explores who is trustworthy or not in a mission where the core directive was “trust no one.”
The November 1989 Berlin setting provides an interesting backdrop for the film, with an underlying soundtrack of punk music scoring the film’s action. And there certainly is a lot of action to enjoy here. From the moment Broughton enters Berlin, she is a target, having to fend off a couple would be captors in the back seat of a car. Perhaps the standout sequence of the film features a prolonged fight scene with Broughton defending Eddie Marsan’s Spyglass - the man who held, and memorized the list of agents - in a stairwell.
Much like the similar stairwell scene from the second season of Daredevil, this prolonged fight sequence has Theron’s Broughton facing off against a series of would-be-assassins up and down an interior stairwell. Edited together to look like a single extended take, the fight and the car chase scene that followed were probably the standout action moments of the film. The illusion of the single take went on so long that I actually thought at multiple points, “wow, this is still going? Cool.” (There were enough little moments that I recognized were used to hide the cuts that I was aware it wasn’t actually a single take, but the artistic choice to appear as one was still very much enjoyed.)
Theron’s performance here serves as a wonderful companion piece to her role as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. Once again, she plays a strong woman capable of commanding the screen in a genre typically dominated by male stars. Broughton never comes across weak. Even when she is battered and bruised, she pushes through the pain. Meanwhile, McAvoy’s David Percival is intentionally ambiguous from the jump, keeping the audience guessing as to where his allegiances lie. Toby Jones and John Goodman make the most of their limited roles in their reactions to Broughton’s re-telling of her Berlin adventure. Lastly, Sofia Boutella plays a rookie French agent on assignment here who is perhaps a bit out of her depth when partnered up against her more tenured counterparts. As such, she’s appropriately more vulnerable than a lot of the performances we see elsewhere in the film but she’s also not given as much to do action-wise, which I found a little disappointing as I really enjoyed her action in Kingsmen: The Secret Service..
While the action and performances are enjoyable, I did feel that the film feels like it get lost in it’s own juggling of characters allegiances. As characters start to really unravel what’s going on and who is on which side, I felt like they didn’t behave appropriately to these revelations. When this happens, it winds up feeling like the characters aren’t behaving naturally for the sole reason that it’s not yet time for the audience to know the information. It’s not too terribly bad in the moment but as I left the theatre I found myself questioning a lot of the characters’ actions in the third act of the movie. “Well if they knew BLANK, why did they do BLANK?” It’s a tough line to walk in an action-spy film and unfortunately I think Atomic Blonde comes up a little short on that front.
Overall though, the action, setting, and strong central performances all contributed to having a good time out at the movies. If this winds up being some type of Bond character for Charlize Theron to continue portraying in additional movies, I’d be happy to give them a shot too. The plot of this one is pretty standard fare (in fact I was amused by the idea that it basically started off with the same “acquire the list of agent identities before it falls into the wrong hands” plot that Skyfall and countless other spy flicks had) but it still brought enough new to the table that I’d be interested to see a follow-up.