Atomic Blonde (2017) (Review)

The world has a James Bond, a Jason Bourne, a John Wick and a Jack Reacher, alongside countless others. For a brief time, we had an Evelyn Salt (but that franchise is on the back-burner) and Susan Cooper awaits her highly-deserved sequel. While plentiful for the men, the spy genre remains a little meagre for the women; enter Lorraine Broughton. Charlize Theron leads the way in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch's solo directorial debut, which seems to have been promoted before every major Hollywood release this summer.

Shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, MI6 agent James Gasciogne is shot and murdered by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin, who steals the List; a piece of microfilmed concealed in a wristwatch, detailing the name of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a top-level spy for MI6, is dispatched to Berlin to recover the List and assassinate a double agent, Satchel, who has sold intelligence to the Soviet for years and played a role in Gasciogne's death. Lorraine makes contact with agent David Percival (James McAvoy) to help track down Spyglass, a man who has memorised the List, and aim to lead him to safety. The action-spy-thriller could very well launch a franchise - but is it worth seeing Lorraine Broughton's first outing?

Atomic Blonde sure is slick. It recognised a missing piece in the cinematic landscape (a female spy-thriller) and decided to plug the gap by delivering an original, entertaining genre piece to weather the interest. To call it the 'female John Wick' may sound like a disservice but Leitch's effort is clearly inspired by the success of similar, male-led action-flicks while managing to form an identity and tone of its own. 

That tone is defined largely by Blonde's sleek visuals and direction. Hyper-neon glows and splashes curate a visually impressive picture helmed by Leitch's confident direction. One particular action set-piece, the now famous stairway onslaught, is superbly choreographed, stitched together like one long, impressive take. It is a truly thrilling watch and the beautiful settings (with fantastic production design all-round), fuelled by the uneasy Berlin backdrop, create a unique identity for the picture to boast. Leitch's direction is surprisingly confident given that this is the first time behind the camera alone (he collaborated with Chad Stahelski for John Wick), gifting audiences a glossy final product to be entertained by. Tyler Bates' soundtrack and score offers a helping hand too, operating tremendously well by highlighting the all-important backdrop, atmosphere and tone of Atomic Blonde.

Of course, Atomic Blonde would not be what it is without Charlize Theron's fantastic turn as MI6 agent Broughton. Theron is easily one of our most talented stars, with her award-winning and transformative turn as one of the most prolific female serial killers in Monster (2003) and her iconic role as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road proving as such, each likely to go down in history. Lorraine as a character is another notch to add to her belt and a new franchise is there for the taking, should this one perform a little better overseas than it currently is in the US.

Charlize Theron delivers an icily sophisticated performance with control and poise, radiating an enigmatic presence from the first frame until the last. Appropriate given her characters required deception as a spy, she remains a continually mysterious and somewhat hypnotising figure and, given the film's ending, you get the sense that we are only beginning to scratch the surface with her character. Whether it's stilletto-stamping or stairway tumbling, she is clearly committed to the role;  Theron is Atomic Blonde's strongest card and the film indulges in playing it - giving audiences what they want - over and over again.

The film's supporting cast are also a solid bunch. James McAvoy, often overlooked by Hollywood, provides a committed turn as a 'is he/isn't he' agent operating in Berlin. As their escape route narrows and the pressure rises, Percival and Lorraine's relationship becomes increasingly difficult and their dynamic continually shifts, fuelling the intense atmosphere compounded by the Cold War backdrop. Sofia Boutella (aka The Mummy's saviour) is endearing as an undercover French agent, blindly and naively stumbling around this dangerous world; Eddie Marsan is reliably great as Spyglass, an important key in securing and protecting the List; and Bill Skarsgard is promising as a mission assistant, slick and confident similar to Kingsman's Eggsy. Toby Jones, John Goodman and Til Schweiger are under-utilised but seemingly well-aligned for the theoretical sequel.

With so many excellent elements in Atomic Blonde, why does it leave you feeling so cold? Atomic Blonde stumbles the most because of its self-confidence. There's a fine line between operating with aplomb and being overly self-indulgent and narcissistic and, rather unfortunately, Atomic Blonde crosses that line more often than desired. It lacks the fundamental charm, heart and soul of other genre pieces and takes itself far too seriously to be thoroughly enjoyed; it is still a good time and you can appreciate the path it chooses to take, but it never truly satisfies an insatiable appetite for a female-led spy-thriller. In all honesty, you feel distant and oddly withdrawn by the end of it: maybe a second watch is in order to appreciate this one more fully.

Hampering further is its pace and momentum. The result of an unnecessarily confusing and scattered storyline, Atomic Blonde throws so much up in the air that the final twenty minutes are a rush to collect it together and tie off the loose ends in a satisfying manner; it just about manages to do so but the film never digs its heels in enough to provide it - or you - with the energy to power this caper through. Again, it comes back to a lack of heart and soul, with a surprising lack of emotional stakes; it cannot avoid leaving you cold and withdrawn.

Therefore, it is easy to diagnose that Blonde's faults lie in its script: Kurt Johnstad's screenplay is too wildly uneven to be fully enjoyed, corrosive to an otherwise enjoyable, thrilling action flick. While it masters the atmosphere and digs out an appropriate tone, the storyline is oddly confusing and cluttered, attempting to be clever but over-stepping the line with a grandiose view of its own talent and skill that hinders your engagement - and appreciation - for the picture.

Atomic Blonde doesn't quite do enough to feed an insatiable appetite for feminist-fuelled thrills and spills but is entertaining enough, even when struggling to achieve the high expectations many held it too. Its lush visuals and outstanding production design (particularly when considering its budget), sophisticated direction, brilliant central performance from Charlize and use of music make it a worthy watch (as well as the terrific stairway action sequence) - but it is not quite the smash success it was lined up to be.


Summary: Atomic Blonde is not the flat-out success many (myself included) hoped for - an uneven pace and narcissistic attitude hinder it - but Charlize Theron's performance, the neon-splashed visuals and solid action sequences make this stylish spy-thriller worthy of your time and attention.