At several points during Atomic Blonde, I wondered if the film was supposed to be 3D, what with all of the cigarette smoke being blown by the camera. Directed by David Leitch, uncredited co-director of John Wick (2014), we see immediately that this is our female John Wick. One of our first scenes of Charlize Theron’s character is of her taking a refreshing(?) ice bath, as we focus on the water running down her bare back. This is not dissimilar to those scenes in John Wick, yet we have no giant back tattoo to take in. Although it is slightly unfair to keep comparing this film with the director’s previous work, the parallels are there. Lovely shots of neon lights are inserted throughout the movie, mostly because we as moviegoers recognize them as “art house film” qualities that transcend our own capabilities as storytellers. They’re not really, but they’re something pretty to look at.
Speaking of Theron, her performance is acceptable. Under better circumstances, her perceived boredom could come off as stoic cleverness. She’s mostly limited by the cool-headedness of her character, which can come off as boring if the filmmakers do it wrong (and they don’t exactly hit it out of the park). James McAvoy doesn’t get a ton to do, but certainly shines as the drunken secret agent.
Let’s talk about the plot. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A master spy must obtain a secret list of all double-agents currently in the field. No, I’m not talking about the James Bond film Skyfall (2012), I’m still telling you about Atomic Blonde. Why would anyone put a list of double agents into a wristwatch? For that matter, why make such a list at all? You would think this information wouldn’t be available to anyone outside the homeland. But here we are. I had problems following the plot of Atomic Blonde, not because of the minor twists and turns, but due to the snail pace of the film. There is a difference between a slow burner and yawn fest.
Many are praising the fight scenes in the film, with particular attention being drawn to the shot made to look like one take. Theron’s character storms the building to save a man who will die onscreen seven minutes later. The fight is intense and would be rather fun, until we discover that this long take is almost forty different takes. A viewer who’s in just for the action might not even notice, but we feel cheated when it’s in so many bits and pieces. At this point I have to ask what the point of all this is. We know that Theron isn’t the invincible Wick, and that’s something this movie does right. Theron’s character is more vulnerable and takes serious damage during this fight. So why wouldn’t you cut to show more of her? The real-time fight scene cannot be done with an actor pretending; it must be done with stunt doubles who are willing to hit each other for real.
As a disclaimer, I will mention that Theron received two cracked teeth during production of this film. She exposed herself to real danger and that is admirable.
Ultimately, Atomic Blonde promises a fun mission with a strong woman character killing baddies. Instead, we’re left with a short-handed tale we don’t care about. The weak script and awkward pacing reflect little of the action-packed trailers we saw. We watch neon lights illuminate the characters and resist the temptation to walk out of the theater. Maybe check out John Wick 2 on Blu-Ray. That’s a director who knows what he’s doing.
As a regular Film: 6/10
As film with a cool female protagonist: 7/10
Now let’s discuss the ending. Throughout the film, we hear of a double agent that could be anyone (but it’s usually someone we’ve met). In this case it’s Theron, who’s revealed to be an American. A red herring is her drink choice of vodka, which would help implicate her as a Russian spy. My issue with this is that this idea was used in the superior film No Way Out (1987), in which a character is revealed to be a Russian spy who also drank vodka during the film. In fact, both spies enjoyed Stoli.