“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” meets “John Wick”. This is what every poster and cover of Atomic Blonde should say, for it perfectly describes what director David Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (most famous for 300) were going for. Based on the Oni Press graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston, the story is set in 1989’s Berlin: MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) has to recover a list that contains the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union.
As you can tell from the premise, the story truly is nothing new (only recently we had this plot device in Skyfall and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation), but I can overlook that if it was told in a clear and easy way, which, unfortunately, it wasn’t. The motivations for the characters are not clear and well fleshed out, players come and go without being full developed, and twists and turns are revealed every 5 minutes without packing any serious punch. This is the real (dare I say only) problem of the movie: it tries to be both a serious spy thriller à la John le Carré, and an 80s action movie with cartoonish sequences. If the story wasn’t taken so seriously, it would have worked wonderfully, but as it stands the two tones clash with one another.
While the story might not necessarily work all that well, one thing that works perfectly are the action sequences (especially when viewed as standalone moments rather than as a whole). There are a total of 4 action setpieces in this film, and only one of them fits with the gritty tone of the story. Similarly to the director’s previous film John Wick, the cinematography is stylish and with muted colors, employing multiple wide shots and longer takes to showcase the choreography and stuntwork. Unlike the 2014 Keanu Reeves movie, this time around there is a bigger emphasis on hand-to-hand combat rather than shootouts, making the fights of the first half feel more like a cartoon than a gritty action thriller: Theron (who gives a commendable physical performance) is hitting bad guys in the face with heels, jumping through windows with a rope attached to a man’s neck, and using refrigerators and other items she can find in the environment, all while never getting really hurt. However, this all changes with the show-stopping, mind-blowing, memorable, masterful, perfect, iconic, instant-classic 10 minute unbroken take that has Theron fight multiple guys on a stairway, in an apartment, and in a car chase. Similarly to the more recent long take in Netflix’s Daredevil and 2003’s Oldboy, the fighters are getting fatigued while fighting, with more bruises and blood all over their bodies, increasing the realism and rawness of the combat (realism that feels absent during the rest of the movie).
The sound design is truly great, with plenty of little details put during the fight scenes that heighten the enjoyment (except for the cliched Wilhelm scream). The soundtrack is jam packed with classic 80s songs (the always-fitting 99 Luftballons, Stigmata, London Calling, etc.) that lessen the tension of the fight scenes. For instance, some police men are entering an apartment where Lorraine is hiding, she starts a radio, and the entire fight scene now has Father Figure in the background. Fun? Yeah. Fitting with a serious neo-noir spy thriller? Not necessarily. It is no coincidence that the best fight scene of the movie has no music in the background.
It might sound like I am hating this film. Now, my façade as a wannabe film critic falls, and I open up about how I truly feel without using fancy words or complex sentences: the movie is a ton of fun, and I was entertained through most of it. The story is predictable and needlessly convoluted. The acting is pretty good and the stuntwork is exceptional. The fight scenes are wonderful when watched as standalones, but inconsistent when watched in the context of the movie. The soundtrack is good, but badly implemented and forced. Some of the CGI is pretty bad.
Overall, do I recommend you go watch Atomic Blonde on the big screen? Yeah! Even with all of its flaws, it is still a very enjoyable movie. If you go in expecting a bigger focus on telling a complex story that has some over-the-top action sequences and one phenomenal fight scene, you are gonna have a great time. I feel like this is gonna be one of those films that I will appreciate more for what it is on further viewings.
Visual Effects: 8
Violence & Gore: 9
Sex & Nudity: 8
Drugs & Profanity: 7.5
Intensity & Horror: 7