In a year oddly littered with intriguing action-packed thrillers it’s nice to know that the male badasses are not getting all the glory. The latest action offering, “Atomic Blonde” features an epic female lead, great fight scenes, and an intriguing plot filled with mystery and espionage. While not quite as thrilling overall as one would hope it would be, “Atomic Blonde” is just another great addition to the action genre in 2017 and proves to be a solid picture even if it favors style or substance.
“Atomic Blonde” is based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” and tells the story of Mi6 spy agent Lorraine Broughton, played by Charlize Theron, as she is tasked with hunting down a secret list of double agents before the list is sold and exposed prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She is teamed with Berlin station chief David Percival, played by James McAvoy, and becomes enthralled in a cat-and-mouse game where noone can be trusted as lies, deceit, and back ally deals begin to threaten the safety of the list and Broughton. The entire story is told through a series of flashbacks as Broughton exposits details of her days-long mission, which is shown in revealing flashbacks.
“Atomic Blonde” was somewhat of a passion project for Charlize Theron and it shows as she truly embodies her badass character in both attitude and physique. Theron trained hard to perfect the choreography and style of the film and it definitely paid off as she truly becomes Broughton and presents viewers with a badass Mi6 agents willing to do whatever it takes to win a fight. I choose to focus on Theron first because she truly drives the film. She’s a person you can route for and fear at the same time and, in a genre littered with male ass-kickers, it’s nice to see a female protagonist who is memorable and a truly likable and well-conceived character.
Beside Theron we have James McAvoy, whose portrayal of David Percival is kind of predictable but still a joy to watch. This is a character McAvoy has played several times before, a drunk and/or reckless man who is more than what he seems. While this particular character doesn’t prove to be anything necessarily special or original from McAvoy, it’s actually McAvoy’s experience as similar characters that proves to be an advantage here as he is just so good at playing these roles he oozes charisma even at the driest of times in this film. Percival may fall in the shadow of his partner, but he’s not forgettable. He proves to be a great addition to a story and as his character’s intentions begin to take shape we see some great character building take place that makes him the perfect contrast to Theron’s more straight forward agent.
Moving to the plot I feel it’s appropriate to point out the major flaw of this story first and foremost and that is that this is a spy thriller that kind of drags on at times. What we hoped would be a non-stop action film actually stops quite a few times to build on the action that DOES take place. While the fights we see are excellent (more on that below) there’s honestly not enough of that kind of conflict that live up to this film’s lofty promises for a major explosion of fighting and bloodshed. Normally slowing down the pace to focus a bit more on establishing the overall conflict of the film would seem like a good idea, but here it feels deliberate as if the filmmakers wanted to manufacture tension that just wasn’t there. The action and espionage seem disjointed from each other, creating a sometimes confusing display that taking away from the overall substance of the film.
Just because the action and drama are disjointed, doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad however. The “spy” aspect of the film does offer some promise however. While it might be a bore to watch and tends to be terribly predictable, it makes for an interesting underlying plot of the film with a great setting during the Berlin riots and a continuous shift from character to character to understand intentions and how allies are working with, and against, each other for their own gains. While there are many predictable aspects of the story, we do get a few “ah ha” moments that make for a satisfying spy thriller. Still, this is not the films strongest trait and we spend way too much time learning about a story that just doesn’t excite us. The film fails to find substance in it’s setup, even with an intriguing conflict and unique backdrop, and depends on the performances of the actors to give the script and overall story life, which they do very well I might add.
When the action DOES kick into high gear however, it’s insanely well down with expertly choreographed fight scenes that show off every bit of the skill and style of Theron’s character as she takes out one opponent after another. The highlight of the film is a massive one-shot sequence that sees Theron take on numerous opponents in a multi-floor building, move to a car, and take out even more assailants while in motion and all without the camera cutting once. This scene gripped me and literally brought the “wow” factor for me. I felt like this is what the film was missing overall. We all wanted to see more of this and while we get several other great battle scenes to compliment it the film really needed more of this kind of camera work and conflict to bring out the best in what it had to offer. It’s not the story and intrigue that brings the best out of “Atomic Blonde”, its the style and I wish the filmmakers had leaned a bit more on this aspect of the film, even building it more into the overall plot. I can’t stress enough though how great the actions scenes really turned out to be. The one-shot alone is worth the entire run time of the film and, in my opinion, it’s one of the greatest action scenes we’ve seen play out all year.
“Atomic Blonde” also suffered from a strange setback that wasn’t really the fault of its creators by any means, but is still worth noting. We’ve seen many different kind of action films in 2017 so far and “Atomic Blonde” seemed to emulate all of them without being a straight up copycat. For example, looking at the massive one-shot scene it brought back memories of “John Wick: Chapter 2”. The car scenes reminded me of “Baby Driver” as did the films incorporation of music into some of its structure and presentation. I don’t believe “Atomic Blonde” straight out copied these projects, but it should be noted that Director David Leitch worked on the first “John Wick” film so there MAY be a lack of originality here to consider. There was an odd sense of “I’ve seen this before” throughout the film that may just speak to the crowded lineup of stylish, and well designed action thriller that 2017 has already offered. Even with this in mind though “Atomic Blonde” holds its own making these tropes feel fresh and new even when we’ve seen them all before which should be the goal of any movie where filmmakers decide to lean on established trends for success.
I’ll be the first to admit “Atomic Blonde” wasn’t quite the action masterpiece I expected it to be, but it’s still a great film full of amazing choreography, memorable characters, and an intriguing, if kind of dry, plot. While the pacing is a bit odd and disjointed, the overall presentation makes for an exceptional film and did I mention that mind-blowing one-shot scene yet? Anyways it’s certainly a fun ride not to be missed and actually left me wanting more, in a good way. Who knows maybe we WILL get that possible “John Wick”/”Atomic Blonde” crossover that’s been hinted someday? One can dream right?