David Leitch’s spy thriller is an unsuccessful blend of detached irony and detached retinas.
There comes a moment of clarity during the spy thriller, Atomic Blonde, when you realize that you simply don’t give a damn about anyone or anything on the screen. Maybe the final straw will be the umpteenth plot twist, or the unapologetic allusiveness of our deadly heroine (capably played by action cinema’s surprising new diva, Charlize Theron). Atomic Blonde certainly has its moments of inspired brutality, but director David Leitch’s unsuccessful blend of detached irony and detached retinas feels like an ambitious experiment that wasn’t ready to leave the laboratory.
“Who won and what was the fucking game, anyway?”
Those words, uttered by an MI6 operative trying to capture the futility of Cold War skullduggery, inadvertently describes the entire viewing experience for Atomic Blonde. Working from Sam Hart's 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, director Leitch (co-director of 2014’s action masterpiece John Wick) throws enough spy tropes and double-crosses into his story to confound even the most vigilant espionage aficionado. Unfortunately, this emphasis of flashiness curtails the bloodthirsty fun and adds little ironic insight on black bag gamesmanship.
Put simply, Atomic Blonde is an exercise in coolness set against the backdrop of a genuine cultural and political phenomenon; the falling of the Berlin Wall. We’re given repeated reminders (via news soundbites in the background) of the escalating protests to tear down the wall. So many reminders, in fact, that it ceases to be an ironic commentary about Cold War profiteers. These characters are simply too dull and robotic to understand their entire reason for being is already over.
In the days leading up to the ‘The Fall’ in November 1989, government agencies from both the East and the West jockey for possession of a list containing the names of every secret agent. That plot should sound familiar, as it’s been the MacGuffin of choice for several popular spy yarns, including 2012’s Skyfall and 1996’s Mission: Impossible. This ‘top secret’ list has been leaked so many times it should be published on Wikipedia, complete with the likes and dislikes of each agent. (Turn-ons: Long interrogations on the beach; regime change. Turn-offs: Interrogators with coffee breath; saying “goodbye”.)
Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is the best agent MI6 can muster to find the list, but things have taken a decidedly sideways turn. Her body is battered with enough bruises to function as a roadmap to brutality, and her superiors fear she might be a KGB mole. She sits in a sterile interrogation room, consuming nothing but cigarettes and paranoia, as she relays the events of the last ten days to her weaselly boss, Gray (Toby Jones), and his CIA counterpart, Kurzfeld (John Goodman).
Therein lies the tragic structural flaw of Atomic Blonde. Just as we’re starting to get interested in Lorraine’s odyssey of broken bones and sexual indiscretions, we cut back to the static interrogation room. Imagine watching a James Bond adventure related after the fact in M’s office. Now take away the 50 years of equity and goodwill built up by Bond and replace them with a heroine we know absolutely nothing about. It’s a herky-jerky formula that thwarts all attempts to fully engage the story or learn anything about Lorraine’s personality or motivations.
Lorraine’s lack of discernible personality is directly opposed by the battering ram that is agent David Percival (James McAvoy). “Percival has gone feral,” intones the brass at MI6, who can’t afford any loose ends when the bricks finally crumble in Berlin. McAvoy is at his McAvoy-est, spitting venom and beating people down like a deranged ball of hate. He’s the kind of sleaze who wears a fake cast on his arm to hide contraband and shoots informants that were foolish enough to trust him.
Details about Lorraine aren’t nearly as obvious (or interesting). Her steamy dalliance with a beautiful female agent named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) might indicate that she prefers the ladies. Despite her repeated denigration of government officials, colleagues, and society in general, she also seems to take a certain pride in her work. While smuggling an informant across the treacherous border between East and West Berlin, for instance, she reassures him that, “I’ve never lost a package.” Beyond that, along with her ability to take punches that would incapacitate a grizzly bear, we know nothing of Lorraine’s backstory or motivations.
Sofia Boutella (Charlize Theron) and Lorraine Broughton (Sandrine) (IMDB)
Worse still, there's too much unnecessary plot preempting the action. The genius of John Wick, which rode Leitch’s flair for choreographed fisticuffs to unexpected success, is that it keeps the plot simple while accumulating delicious details about Wick’s world. In Atomic Blonde, there are no details… only plot. Shifting or unclear objectives prevent the story from ever building tension. You can feel Leitch straining to capture the fluid loyalties and inherent danger of the spy game, but those intentions are lost in a quagmire of pointless twists and turns.
Atomic Blonde also suffers by way of comparison to the recent Baby Driver in its use of music. Unlike Baby Driver, which seamlessly matched song and action in breathlessly inventive ways, Atomic Blonde just throws a cross-section of groovy tunes into a blender and serves them up haphazardly. It’s always nice to hear David Bowie, but did we really need two versions of “99 Luftballons”? Unless we’re roller skating, probably not.
What Leitch does well, and what most viewers came to see, is action. The fight sequences, including the film’s standout set piece in a stairwell, are almost primal. Combatants grunt like animals and each blow lands with unpleasant urgency. Tarkovsky’s Stalker even gets a cameo, as Lorraine and a random Russian baddie battle in front of a theater screen.
Unfortunately, by the time the action finally arrives in the film’s second half, you no longer care. Any energy you might have invested in this ugly world filled with shallow characters has been squandered on silly spy plots and shoddy storytelling. There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrating style over substance, but Atomic Blonde is so cool that it’s ice cold.