Imagine, if you will, Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron having a fistfight. This is undeniably someone’s idea of heaven. The single directorial organism that made John Wick split in two so that one of them could make Atomic Blonde, and Reeves and Theron trained together. That could be all there was to say, and some would be satisfied, but apart from that, Atomic Blonde is a stylishly orchestrated period piece of espionage, intrigue, and arm casts.
Mere weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Theron, Fate of the Furious) is despatched to East Germany to secure a list of every field agent active in the Soviet Union. Broughton makes contact with East Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy), and works to keep ahead of the multiple people trying to kill her and to uncover the identity of Double Agent Satchel.
Theron is crucial to the success of Atomic Blonde, and she is exactly the right balance of deadly and charismatic. She is more than capable of taking everyone she comes across down but also has the sort of vulnerability that is often ignored in a film where a character is repeatedly beaten. This is played both for realism and for laughs, and Theron can handle both of them. McAvoy, with a broken hand courtesy of filming Split, is slightly less convincing, but that’s largely due to the erratic nature of his character — with no grounding, McAvoy can only provide so much gravity to the role. Boutella, who could have run the risk of being window dressing, as women often used to be (and still are) in this sort of film, also holds her own. The rest of the supporting cast — remarkably large and well known given the film’s relatively small budget — are strong and provide several of the film’s more genuine surprises.
Writer Kurt Johnstad (300: Rise of an Empire), usually accustomed to writing nationalistic celebrations of America (even when the Americans are Scots and Australians playing Ancient Greek), has crafted a more than serviceable script from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s original graphic novel. Sometimes the plot’s developments are transparent due to certain characters’ overtly suspicious actions, and there are moments where the only excuse for Lorraine not foreseeing something are poor secret agency, but Atomic Blonde largely feels satisfactorily told, and undeniably takes an extra push beyond what might have been expected of it.
Though Atomic Blonde opens with a Bowie song that was essentially claimed forever by Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, and most of its song choices are fairly obvious for an action film set in the eighties, Atomic Blonde works from a music perspective. Director David Leitch (John Wick) has a firm grasp on when to let music take over a scene, and when to fade it out. It genuinely complements most of the action, and that is what the film does best: the choreography of action sequences. Lorraine is an inventive defender and attacker, and there are at least two sequences across the film that equal or better anything on offer in 2017, and are definitely unlike anything else that has or will make it to the screen.
Atomic Blonde may be a little convoluted in its twists, some of which are completely unsurprising, but it has a strong aesthetic sense and it anticipates much of what the audience didn’t know it wanted in an action film. There are many people willing to watch Charlize Theron commit violent acts; Atomic Blonde is one such vehicle that never fails to deliver in that regard, and it’s entertaining besides.
Atomic Blonde opened in Australian cinemas on August 2, 2017.
Directed by: David Leitch.
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Sofia Boutella.