In the wake of television series’ such as FX’s The Americans and the German-language Deutschland 83, 80’s Cold War espionage intrigue is sort of in vogue again. Those two series’ are leisurely paced, solemn, and oozing with “prestige.” What the Reagan/Gorbachev revival has been missing thus far is an outrageous, goofy, balls-to-the-wall action flick. David Leitch’s incredibly stylish Atomic Blonde corrects that oversight and then some with a stellar cast, deliriously fun (if obvious) soundtrack, and some phenomenally choreographed fight sequences. Indeed, only when Atomic Blonde aims for complexity in its final act does it falter.
Atomic Blonde takes place in Berlin in November of 1989, just as the Wall is about to collapse – although onscreen text tells us that “this is not that story.” Atomic Blonde is the story of MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, as cool as ever), whose mission in Berlin is to recover a list of compromised secret agents being shopped around the city by KGB hitman Yuri Bakhtin (Johannes Johanneson). However, when we meet Lorraine, her mission has already taken place and she arrives beaten, bruised, and chain smoking at an interrogation with Gray (Toby Jones), her MI6 superior, and a nameless CIA agent (John Goodman, sleazy and menacing). Turns out that Lorraine’s mission had begun to go awry from the moment she arrived in Berlin. She is made by the KGB at the airport. A young French woman named Delphine (Sophia Boutella) follows her, though her motives are as driven by lust as her work (every single character in this film is a spy). Her contact in the city is the hard-drinking, possibly sociopathic agent David Percival (James McAvoy, excellent.) Percival is heavily involved in East Berlin black market through which he’s turned a Stasi agent who has seen the aforementioned list AND possesses a photographic memory (Eddie Marsan).
A film like Atomic Blonde, though based on a highly-acclaimed graphic novel (The Coldest City by Antony Johnston), does not exist to serve a plot. Atomic Blonde exists because it is fun. And boy, is it ever. The acting is leaps and bounds better than in your garden variety action flick. McAvoy continues to make the case that he’s very much in the same league as the Fassbenders and Hardys. There has never been a film Goodman’s been in that has been worse off for his presence. Marsan and Jones are consistently first-rate character actors, even if they are not given a ton to do here.
Ultimately, none of them compare to Theron, who proves she may be our single greatest action-flick actor, if not star, with cool charisma and incredible physicality from start to finish. She’s nigh impossible to not watch and she provides an emotional heft that the script has no time for. Of course, for some of the film’s best sequences, Theron is not even playing Lorraine; Monique Ganderston, her stunt double, performs some of the most artful hand-to-hand combat scenes in contemporary cinema. Here Leitch’s background as a stuntman and stunt coordinator comes to fruition. One sequence, towards the end of the second act, is a stone-cold instant-classic; an extremely long take involving close to ten characters and multiple stories of a building that is so operatically outlandish and virtuosic, it ends up being somewhat moving.
Leitch’s most obvious stylistic influence here is Michael Mann. There is an aggressive amount of neon (which in practice is, paradoxically, both tacky and incredibly stylish), several scenes that amount to not much more than music videos for synth-pop and New Wave classics, and Stasi and KGB agents whose generic Eastern-European accents (almost all of the Germans and Russians in the film are played by Scandanavians) are the only thing separating them from Miami Vice mobsters. While Leitch lacks Mann’s patience and attention to detail, he makes a convincing case for turning everything up to eleven that separates him from his antecedent.
Beyond the great fights, heavy style, and an A-list cast hamming it up, a lot of what makes Atomic Blonde so much fun is that it resists the dreariness that pervades so much of our non-Bond spy cinema and television. Here, the intricately drawn web of intrigue serves the fun rather than vice versa, which makes it disappointing that the final act falls apart under the weight of its own knottiness. Atomic Blonde is a much smarter film when it’s self-consciously dumb than when it attempts to be clever. While its source material has been compared to Le Carré, and thus likely the source for the seemingly thousands of twists in the final twenty minutes, those similarities are Atomic Blonde’s weakest elements. As an action flick, Atomic Blonde is a masterpiece but as a serious spy thriller, it is hugely lacking. Thankfully, most of Atomic Blonde is a pure, unfiltered action flick.
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Atomic Blonde opens everywhere on 7/28.