Stop – clear your mind. Now, ask yourself: “How much money would I spend to watch Charlize Theron beat the crap out of a bunch of men?” Think for a few seconds. Is your answer around, say, 14 to 18 dollars? Then you might want to buy a ticket to Atomic Blonde this weekend. If not – I’m sure Dunkirk is playing at your local multiplex, too.
Atomic Blonde is an action film in its purest form possible. This film exists solely to entertain its viewers with car chases, shootouts, and impressive stunts. And, in that regard, the film succeeds. There is no denying that Atomic Blonde has some of the best action scenes in recent memory, made all the more impressive by their unapologetic brutality and its star’s total commitment to the part. But when it comes to other reasons to celebrate Atomic Blonde, there are only slim pickings.
Atomic Blonde’s plot – pulled from a graphic novel titled “The Coldest City” – somehow manages to be both incomprehensibly thick and completely nonsensical. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an icy M16 agent looking for a missing list of undercover agents that has fallen into the hands of the KGB. In the grand tradition of spy movies, she is told to trust no one, and it seems like just about every supporting character has their own agenda. The film’s plot twists aren’t all that surprising, as there are only a handful of supporting characters and, through process of (oftentimes bloody) elimination, it becomes easy to figure out who in the cast is a double agent.
But the plot also contains an almost comical amount of double crossing, and it is occasionally difficult to tell who actually trusts each other onscreen. Of course, one can enjoy Atomic Blonde without actually comprehending the plot at all – the action scenes more than make up for that. But that leads to the film’s main problem: it has impeccable style, but a complete lack of substance. Whenever the film isn’t focused on action, it comes to a screeching halt, and develops an overreliance on pretty cinematography and (admittedly catchy) ’80s pop songs. As such, much of the film’s middle section sags.
Luckily, if you were to doze off during the dialogue driven scenes, the action will certainly wake you up. There are some truly stunning sequences here, which showcase the sort of stunt work and hand-to-hand combat that CGI driven hits have left in the dust. While the film’s trailer has, unfortunately, spoiled some of the best action beats, it’s still a thrill to watch Theron face-off against countless armies of henchmen. And director David Leitch uses his film to prove how varied his set of skills is – no two action scenes are the same.
The movie’s climax – a seven minute fight on a stairwell, shot in one take, is particularly impressive, and almost worth the price of admission alone. Atomic Blonde’s makeup and sound design also deserve kudos – you hear every bone crunch, and the way characters realistically sustain injuries while facing off in combat makes the film stand out amongst its peers.
It’s hard to imagine any other actress playing the titular role. As we saw with Fury Road, Theron is a brilliant action star. True, this is not her most challenging work to date, but she’s clearly having fun, and takes her work here seriously. As Lorraine’s contact in Berlin, James McAvoy also turns in a nice performance, even if it does pale in comparison to his other, recent roles. The real discovery amongst the cast, however, is Sofia Boutella, best known for her work in Kingsman (or The Mummy, if you’re one of the few who saw it). As a French spy who has a romantic fling with Lorraine, Boutella has an unbelievable amount of screen presence, which radiates off of her from the moment she comes onscreen. She has a small role – maybe 20 minutes in total – but each of her scenes are memorable and will, hopefully, serve as a launching pad to more projects.
Reviewing a film like Atomic Blonde is a challenge because, technically speaking, it accomplished the task it set out to do. The action scenes are all entertaining and, even with a bland plot to accompany them, are well directed enough to warrant a viewing. And, when compared to this summer’s other action films, Atomic Blonde is one of your better options – there aren’t any CGI robots or annoying pirates to deal with.
But Hollywood seems to be embracing a new subgenre of action films that are gritty, wear their R rating on their sleeve, and choose intricate stunt work over story – see John Wick or The Raid. And while that’s all fine and good, great films have managed to create iconic action scenes and provide intellectually stimulating stories, or showcase outstanding performances. Why lower the bar now? I’m happy a film like Atomic Blonde, where Charlize Theron plays a badass, bisexual action hero who kicks the ass of every man she comes in contact with, exists. I just wish it had more to show off than its stunts.
Atomic Blonde Overall rating: 6 out of 10