There’s a lot to like about Atomic Blonde: James McAvoy draws you in with every wry smirk; Charlize Theron is magnetic as ever; and the action sequences blow away the competition. One scene in particular that bridges the second act into the third is a remarkable cinematic achievement. Filmed in one fluid uncut shot that lasts for at least ten minutes, the scene gets almost everything right, from the pace to the effects, adding in some brutal stunts and realism for good measure. By the end of this crazy ballet, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is bruised, bloody, but most importantly (and unlike any action movie has ever done to portray their hero), winded and exhausted. It’s a scene that’s worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, that’s all this movie has going for it.
Based on a graphic novel series, “The Coldest City” by Kurt Johnstad, Blonde takes place in Berlin during the events that led up to the fall of the Berlin wall. Why this is important isn’t quite clear, but it does have some relation to the what Lorraine is tasked to find — a watch that contains a list of covert operatives from all secret agency branches across the world. She is forced to team up with another British operative, David Percival (McAvoy), to not only retrieve the watch, but to track down a clandestine operative by the name of Scratch, a rogue agent from MI6.
At least I believe that’s the idea, since this aspect of the film is highly convoluted. There are so many characters that may or may not be good, who may or may not be a double agent, and who may or may not double- or triple-cross someone over the course of the movie, that the confusion of it all hinders your ability to feel fully engaged with what’s happening and makes the entire film feel uncharacteristically flat. Director David Leitch tries to make up for this by adding stylized titles, set pieces and violence, but in this case, style definitely can’t overcome the lack of substance.
One of the best aspects of the film lies in the chemistry between Theron and McAvoy. Their relationship has a spark that never ignites, but smolders like a water ready to boil. Every time they’re together, you’re invested in the moment, and the way McAvoy is able to mesmerize even when the scene fails to ignite is a testament to his ability as an actor. McAvoy can make the mundane feel like a day at an amusement park. Which is why it was incredibly unsatisfying to see him sidelined so often. I know this is Theron’s movie, and I get why his character is a bit more shadowed, but it leaves so much to be desired when he’s not on screen.
As for Theron, she does exactly what she was hired for — look tough, act sexy and kick some ass while doing it. But that isn’t enough to sustain a two-hour film. She needs a tight script to back her up and she just doesn’t have that here. The entire film feels so loose that you could throw in a scene of her having an affair with a female French operative and… oh wait. That does happen. Why exactly? I could understand if it made sense at all to what was happening (or as to where the film takes you at the end), but for whatever reason, the whole story line seems tacked on for no other reason than to add in some fleshy same-sex lovin’ to titillate the guys in the crowd. One problem: Theron and Sofia Boutella play together like cousins doing something naughty in the bathroom during a family get together. That is to say, nothing against Boutella, but she and Theron have no chemistry together, at least in comparison to Theron and McAvoy.
All of this is tied together through a story thread that finds Lorraine in a debriefing after the events described in the movie have taken place. Toby Jones plays the main operative, Eric Gray, who assigned Lorraine the job (along with his cohort, Cheif ‘C’ (James Faulkner), who sits quietly behind the glass during the debrief in an interrogation room). He along with CIA operative Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) do a nice job bantering back and forth with everyone in the room and play the comedy well. I also like the fact that because the events are being dictated by Lorraine, that it’s hard to know whether she’s a trustworthy witness.
However, by structuring the film around Lorraine telling the story of what happened as we watch the events unfold adds a little discrepancy to some of the scenes that we’re given. In more than one instance, we’re shown something Lorraine couldn’t possibly have known about, at least at the time it is shown in the film, which make these scenes seem somewhat out of place. Some would make sense if they were edited into the movie at a later point, but when we see one of the villains beating down a bunch of kids in an abandoned werehouse, you have to wonder two things: How did Lorraine know about this incident, and 2) why is it important?
That last question is probably the most imperative question, since you may have already noticed, it arises more often than not, and not only in the action on screen. Much like Baby Driver a few weeks ago, music is very important to this film, at least in Leitch’s mind. But is it important to the film itself? In Baby Driver, the music had a purpose; here, it feels like they threw it in because it sounded cool on paper. For the most part, it works, and adds a little substance to what’s happening, but had the intentional use of it been stripped from the film, it wouldn’t have hurt it in any major way. I wanted to like this movie, and as I said at the top, there is a lot to like; but in the end, the film just fell too flat and felt to messy for my taste. Maybe if I watch it again after knowing the final twists, I might catch some of the nuance that leads up to it, but I shouldn’t have to; I should want to, and in that regard, I’m not sure I do.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include The Dark Tower, Detroit and Kidnap. If you would like to see a review for tone of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.