Aesthetically, Atomic Blonde is a knockout. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela imbues this period thriller with 21st century energy, as searing neon and lurid graffiti paint Cold War Berlin in vivid detail. Based on 2012 Graphic Novel Coldest City, every shot looks ripped from a pulpy comic to the point where the artistry in the framing threatens to become unbearably smug. This assault on the senses is backed by a thumping 80s soundtrack, which thankfully isn’t afraid to hit the nail on the head with TWO uses of 99 Luftballons.
The punky noir wonderland of Atomic Blonde is one hell of a setting, realism be damned, and chances are most of the audience won’t have spent any time in Berlin during the final days of the Cold War anyway. Surprisingly, the biggest letdowns visually are the fight sequences, which by and large are played fairly straight. The film pulls no punches but as the fights slog on it’s easy to feel as tired as those duking it out on screen.
In her first leading role since Mad Max: Fury Road (sure, she’s not in the title but we all know Imperator Furiosa was the real star there), Charlize Theron is disappointingly restrained as Agent Lorraine Broughton. She gets a chance to let loose in the action scenes – where she supposedly did 98% of her own stunts – but the nature of the role demands a reserved, brooding performance. This isn’t a problem, but it’s sad that Atomic Blonde is more interesting in aping the Jason Bourne and the 21st century secret agents, then throwing back to the heyday of the wisecracking superspy.
Elsewhere, the rest of the cast aren’t given much room to breathe. James McAvoy is having an absolute blast as the roguish Agent Percival, but character actors like Toby Jones, John Goodman and Eddie Marsan aren’t given any time to dig into their respective roles. Most egregiously, Sofia Boutella is completely wasted as a naive french spy, largely kept out of the limelight and then unceremoniously dropped before the final act.
Female-led action movies are thankfully on the rise at the moment, in no small part aided by Mad Max: Fury Road and Charlize Theron’s scene-stealing Furiosa, as well as more recent successes like Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, while Wonder Woman is shaped from the top down by female voices, Atomic Blonde is not, and disappointingly falls prey to many of the common pitfalls of female objectification that pervade the spy genre. As Agent Broughton, Theron is indomitable, but it’s hard to argue that the numerous and lengthy scenes of her getting her kit off are anything other than needless titillation.
Ultimately, John Wick co-director David Leitch carries over much of the trappings of his first feature, but none of the soul. Atomic Blonde has many failings in its delivery, but the concept and creative team still show great promise, and the film’s final moments suggest that sequels following Agent Broughton could easily escape Blonde’s dour elements and find the fun in a new mission.
Dir: David Leitch
Prd: Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A.J. Dix
Scr: Kurt Johnstad, based on Anthony Johnston’s ‘The Coldest City’
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Music: Tyler Bates
Running Time: 115 minutes