Director: David Leitch
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella
Mad Max: Fury Road posed a question that required an answer; why, in this day and age, aren’t there more great female fronted action movies? It’s not that such a thing doesn’t exist (though they’re scarce), its more that they’re all too often bogged down by the lecherous male gaze of their creators. The end result becomes compromised and, at worst, you’re left with something actually reductive. Which is not to say that all female action movies should be created and controlled by women (although lots more of that please), rather that neutrality in this field is a tough thing to come by.
George Miller got it right with Fury Road and so it makes sense that Charlize Theron has become the figurehead for this necessary shot of feminine badassery to the genre (though Gal Gadot’s got her back). She returns to our screens here in Atomic Blonde, a film she takes a producer credit on also. Adapted from a series of comic books entitled ‘The Coldest City’ by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart, this is a tough, pulpy slice of Cold War espionage and intrigue that takes place in Berlin on the brink of the wall coming down in 1989. It’s the end of an era, but in Atomic Blonde the Cold War is not over.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent dispatched to the city when another agent is brutally killed. The set-up has a lot of potential; anyone who has wished for a female James Bond might particularly push their chips forward on this one. Unfortunately it’d be a losing bet as Atomic Blonde takes a whole load of promise and very quickly pisses it all away.
It begins very poorly. The killing of the agent that sets this whole mess in motion is ungainly, knuckle-headed, typified by borish, first-draft dialogue. We then zip to the other end of the story and are introduced to Broughton, naked, bathing (not for the last time). She is debriefed at MI6 by spy-thriller stalwart Toby Jones and CIA operative John Goodman (looking particularly bored). She tells the story of the movie. By necessity this then places two debriefing scenes next to each other. It’s messy baggage. Plus, by using this framework the film acknowledges her safety throughout, largely denying the action scenes any sense of threat. Sure, she’s the lead and every new property these days is gonna fight to become a franchise, but still, allow us a little drama?
The thuddingly boring plot revolves around – sigh – getting back a list of active operatives that has strayed into the wrong hands (and also, in this case, minds); a routine so cliché that Atomic Blonde is essentially over before it’s begun. There’s no weight to the story, no emotional connectivity, no risk. Right out of the gate investment is an effort. But okay, we’ll go through the motions.
Director David Leitch arrives at the project post-John Wick and, like his former creative partner Chad Stahelski, favours a cool neon aesthetic. Berlin itself quickly becomes the very best feature of Atomic Blonde, and Leitch lays on the blunt cultural reference points pretty thick. I swear studios these days have added heavy-handed nostalgia to the list of essentials in their redundant checklists for what’ll constitute a hit.The specificity of the time period is perfect for purpose, but isn’t taken advantage of, save for a scene at a rally which steals its conceit from Hitchcock.
In fact, Atomic Blonde plagiarises throughout, and even has the gall to feature a scene in which plagiarism is discussed on TV. The problem with stealing wholesale is that you’d better have something to add to the conversation afterward; Leitch doesn’t, but he seems to think he does. So the film also makes misjudged nods to such classics as Casablanca and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. This is foolhardy territory in which to tread. Atomic Blonde crumples when set beside cinematic heavyweights.
Broughton makes contact with British agent David Percival (a near intolerable James McAvoy) and lo a sub-par Le Carré-lite narrative is unwound, briefly interspersed with kinetic and violent action.
Now. The action is good. An early sequence in which Broughton punishes a bunch of thugs with a coil of hosepipe sets the tone. Leitch brings over some of the sensibilities seen in the John Wick films, affording the audience a sense of time and space. Things happen quickly; impacts have consequences etc, etc. The film is duly punctuated a short while later with another brief set-to at a cinema. Also good. However, the trump card here is the extended sequence around the end of the second act which plays as if it’s one sustained take. There are noticeable edits, but regardless, it’s a small masterpiece and really the movie’s signature episode, as Theron resourcefully battles thugs in a stairwell and a small apartment (which takes a battering) before winding up in a car chase, all within the illusion of real-time. These violent episodes are graphic, but through their staging they’re also thrilling and consistently interesting.
It’s a shame that the film surrounding them is such a misfire, outstaying its welcome by at least 20 minutes. Theron has the action chops but her character is an empty shell, McAvoy grates (why, why, why does he start talking to the camera!?), everyone else runs on autopilot. The only other nominal highlight is Sofia Boutella as French connection / love interest Delphine. She at least evokes our sympathies. Too bad that the writers have little use for her other than as a crude bargaining chip. By the end, extreme weariness consumes all. Another double-agent reveal? Oh. Like. Wow I guess.
It isn’t that female-fronted violent action films don’t work. We still deserve more of them. But they need – like any film really – to be good. They need to have something we can care about. They need to be about something. Atomic Blonde features protest rallies. It echoes with the threat of nuclear conflict. These things are of the moment. Yet it still feels totally mute. Good action, shame about literally everything else.