OnScreen Review: 'Atomic Blonde'

Ken Jones

  • OnStage Chief Film Critic

I love a good spy thriller, especially one set during the Cold War. Give me an agent on a covert mission in a foreign country with murky interests, peril surrounding the situation, and an uncertain outcome and there’s a very high likelihood I’m going to enjoy that movie. Throw in some great action too, and the sky is the limit. Therefore, I was very much looking forward to Atomic Blonde, which stars Charlize Theron as an agent in Berlin in the late 80s and is directed by one of the directors of John Wick. I was not disappointed.

With the backdrop of the brink of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is an MI6 spy sent by her superiors (Toby Jones and James Faulkner) to Berlin in the wake of the death of another MI6 agent who was trying to retrieve The List and bring in a Soviet defector codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). The List is a microfilm containing all the names of agents working in the Soviet Union and was taken off the agent when he was killed by a German Stasi officer. While in Berlin, Broughton is to work with David Percival (James McAvoy), another MI6 agent who has “gone native” living the good life in Berlin. She also becomes involved with Delphine (Sophia Boutella), a French agent that is tailing her. U.S. interests are represented in the form of Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), a CIA agent working with Lorraine’s superiors at MI6. On top of it all, the presence of a double agent known only as Satchel complicates matters.

As much as I love the spy genre, there is a lot to it that is pure formula. If it is in the wrong hands or if a film does nothing to distinguish itself, it can feel very generic. Atomic Blonde follows a lot of the formulaic storytelling of most spy movies, and a lot of those story elements have been done better in other places. The List containing all of the names of every active agent is a common trope, just ask Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible where he tries to retrieve the NOC list. This film also clearly draws some elements from John le Carré in the debriefing scenes that help to frame the story, though at this point le Carré is practically synonymous with spy. So the basics of the plot are fairly conventional and a little predictable, and it’s the only thing that holds the film back in any way.

Fortunately, the film distinguishes itself in the aesthetics and the action. This film is dripping in 80s neon and synth. If John le Carré had written this story, it might be titled The Spy Who Came Back from the Club. If it were a Bourne movie, it might be titled The Bourne Rave. There have been a handful of films recently where the soundtrack has really stood out from a nostalgia factor and the films have leaned into it (Guardians of the Galaxy). The soundtrack accentuates the tone and the look of the film. Lorraine’s hotel room is furnished with neon lights adorning the ceiling. She visits bars with vibrant colors and neon red lighting in the bathroom of a club. There’s a splash of pulpy 80s Euro hedonism thrown in for good measure too. Overall, the cinematography has a bluish tint to give the film a cool, chilling veneer. Everything looks and sounds great.

People aren’t just going to see Atomic Blonde for the visual style, the soundtrack, and the boilerplate spy story. The action is the driving force here, and Atomic Blonde packs a wallop. The film opens with Charlize Theron getting out of a tub full of ice water, her body covered in scrapes and bruises, indicating that she has been through hell physically. The film covers the previous ten days and events that led to her looking the way she does. The action is a mash-up of Jason Bourne and John Wick, with the exterior coolness of Bond. There’s a fight in the in the backseat of a car, a terrific fight in an apartment where she jumps out of a window, and a very fine car chase where the camera moves about wildly inside the car with Theron and he passenger. The film features some wild gunfights and hand to hand combat. The centerpiece of it all, though, is an extended stairwell fight that is simply bravura action filmmaking. Theron takes on multiple attackers coming at her in pairs. This action sequence is at least on par with the best of the John Wick films, of which director David Leitch was also involved. The only action scenes in recent history that surpass it that come immediately to mind are in The Raid: Redemption and The Raid: Berandal.

At the center of all of this is Theron. She has firmly established herself as a believable and capable female action star. Given that she’s also a terrific actress, and it’s an interesting time in her career arc. She established herself when she stole the show from Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road as Furiosa. Earlier this year, she involved herself in the Fast & Furious franchise. Here, she is the blonde, tough-as-nails spy who will take on all comers and leave them crumpled up in a heap on the floor. Scarlett Johansson is another woman who has carved out a similar place in the film industry through playing Black Widow in the Marvel films and also with Lucy and the disappointing Ghost in the Shell. Both are believable as action stars, but I think Theron is a better overall actress (though ScarJo is far from a slouch). She also is a statuesque figure that evokes Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise. 

Atomic Blonde is a terrific action spy flick. It has just enough generic spy thriller DNA to make the storyline work, but it’s got so much aesthetic pleasure in the action and the bathed-in-neon feel that pushes it over the top and set it apart. Theron is genuine action star. The film opens with her extremely bruised body on display. By the end of the film, you feel every bruise she received, but leave with the satisfaction of knowing that she gave far worse than she got.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars