There’s a no-brainer quality to the idea behind Atomic Blonde: a female John Wick, directed by one of the two directors of John Wick and starring one of the great actresses of our time. That’s what makes the end result so disappointing: how do you mess this up?
Kurt Kohnstad wrote the screenplay based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, and it’s worth asking if the source material’s as wildly incoherent as its adaptation. A thorough plot summary for Atomic Blonde would take the rest of this review, with as many double- and triple- and quadruple-crossings as the film employs. Charlize Theron plays MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton, assigned to Berlin in November 1989, just before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, to retrieve an all-important dossier from the wrong hands. There, she works with the Berlin-stationed agent David Percival (James McAvoy) without ever entirely trusting him.
The events in Berlin are told via flashback, as Lorraine sits in a debriefing with superiors played by John Goodman and Toby Jones. The framing device instantly lets all the air out of the film – none of the action holds any real tension for us, because we already know that it’s resolved, with Lorraine safely in the hands of MI6. Of course, that’s assuming Atomic Blonde could have sustained tension even without the flash-forward scenes, which feels unlikely given the needlessly convoluted nature of its plot, a narrative maze that is tedious when it thinks it’s being challenging.
Theron is, of course, great. She’s sexy steel and ends the film truly beat to shit, a John McClane-style devolution that’s admirable to behold. Director David Leitch delivers worthy action, with each punch, kick and headshot landing for the audience as well as the recipient. There are a couple of very good setpieces in Atomic Blonde – an inside-POV car chase, a stairwell fight – and Theron kicks ass in all of it. But by the time we get to these scenes, our interest is already well and truly taxed. Atomic Blonde gives us so little to actually care about, an exercise in style over substance where even the style starts to grate after a time.
The soundtrack is jam-packed with ‘80s New Wave, absolutely killer songs that justify the setting when nothing else does (certainly no thematic weight is given to the Berlin wall backdrop). But even these capital-letter Needle Drops become tiresome when used with such winking over-reliance, every two minutes an action montage serving nothing but a reminder that You Will Want To Buy This Soundtrack. Visually, yes, Atomic Blonde looks cool. It could use some color – it’s a chilly blue-grey, though occasionally popped with reds and pinks – but, yeah, it's a good-looking movie, because the ‘80s were a good-looking time. The hair is great, the clothes are terrific.
That is to say: the clothes, such as they are, are terrific. Because there aren’t many of them. When a film is sold as “a female John Wick” (and naturally, the narrative around the movie isn’t really Atomic Blonde’s fault, but that’s how people are going to talk about it), it feels reasonable to expect that the female John Wick would sometimes be allowed to wear pants. Charlize Theron is so naked in this movie, and sure, who can complain about naked Charlize Theron, but after a while it starts to feel like too much of a good thing. It rounds the corner past empowering straight into male gaze. There’s one scene in particular – featuring Sofia Boutella this time rather than Theron – that feels actively disrespectful, an extended sequence of brutal violence visited upon her character while she wears a lace teddy, presumably intended to titillate. It doesn’t sit right.
McAvoy is another liability here. He’s trying to sell Fight Club-era Brad Pitt, but no one’s buying. It’s a thin, obnoxious performance when Percival is described to us as canny and layered. If he hadn’t been described as such, we’d never know it. Goodman and Jones are always good, as is Eddie Marsan as Spyglass, but only because Goodman, Jones and Marsan are excellent actors. They’re given nearly nothing to do here, but they do it well enough.
It’s a bummer. Theron is so good in it, and some of the fight scenes sing, but an action movie needs focus and energy, and Atomic Blonde is utterly bereft of both.