Review: Atomic Blonde

From one of the co-directors of John WickAtomic Blonde is unsurprisingly filled with bruising action, its lesser points glossed over by a funky 80s look and sound and a strong action performance from Charlize Theron.

Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is one of MI6’s top agents, and in 1989 is tasked with travelling to Berlin and retrieving a wristwatch with identities of all active field agents. Arriving and working alongside the erratic David Percival (James McAvoy), she fights and sleuths her way around the fractious city, dealing with goons and subterfuge on the trail of the watch.

David Leitch broke away from directing John Wick: Chapter Two to make this movie, and you can clearly see why. This movie has certain strong links to John Wick, namely in its bruising yet clearly shot action and stunts, as well as a sardonic, laconic lead character. Adapted from a graphic novel, the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad tries quite hard to echo spy movie tropes as well as carve out something new and different, in the febrile period before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He also develops Broughton in a subtle way throughout, taking that (sadly) unique central point of a female action protagonist and building it out into something memorable yet equal to her (many) male counterparts.

This works for and against it, the period setting and music (more on this later) combining with set design and evocative, atmospheric lighting to throw you back into that time in history. And for the most part, the plot is tight and fun, dragging you screaming through backstabbing and mystery, until it loses it all towards the end. These last act shenanigans take away from earlier, more interesting twists and turns indicative of an area of history/spy films that only really Bridge of Spies previously occupied.

However, beyond all that, the film’s saving graces are its action and 80s setting. The fight scenes and stunts, unsurprisingly, are bruising and brutal, and nobody walks away from them scot free or without injury, especially Broughton. Much like the John Wick movies, action has consequence here, making some standout fights (one in an apartment, another in a stairwell) hit the viewer hard. A select number of car chases are impressively done (besides some shonky greenscreen, perhaps the film’s only obvious or required uses of CGI), but it’s the smaller more spy-film scenes of tense confrontation that zing, especially when the tension detonates. There’s also a couple of scenes of raunch, as per the usual spy movie requirements!

The distinctive look (dripping with neon in the west, drained of colour in the east) partners perfectly with period costuming (a great phrase when discussing the 80s) and an excellent soundtrack and original score by Brian Tyler. Some 80s songs aren’t surprising to hear (one particular, very famous German pop track especially) but others work perfectly alongside the action, particularly a hilarious use of George Michael. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, this retro music accentuates both the comedy and action, while the score augments and modernises some famous songs for a halfway house of cool.

Theron’s lead role builds on her entrance into the action A-leagues with Mad Max: Fury Road, partnering an excellent aptitude for stuntwork and fighting with an ice cool, severe performance as Lorraine, who slowly but surely defrosts in surprising ways (most definitely not what you might expect considering other similar female characters). There’s a lot of work to be done in glances and facial expressions, and the actress is deft at showing both a steely resolve and a slow but steady fracturing, as Broughton’s skills and self regard begin to crack while the plot closes in. Find a way to put her in a movie with John Wick and we’re talking…

James McAvoy seems to delight in skeezy lead or supporting roles when he’s not X-menning it up, and Percival is absolutely no exception. A character capitalising on the crumbling of a war-torn city, and the combination of two very different cultures, McAvoy’s pervy English bastard meets his match in Broughton early on, and you expect a double act, but as the plot develops a different dynamic emerges, led by the actor’s slithery, shifting abilities. While the story perhaps doesn’t serve the character as well (it’s not his story), McAvoy’s performance is memorably bastardly and an English cousin to his depraved Scottish cop in Filth.

John Goodman and Toby Jones offer their usual characterful performances as CIA and MI6 bosses interrogating Broughton in scenes bookending the main events, with the US and UK actors respectively providing gruff menace and officious annoyance. In Berlin, Sofia Boutella’s French agent brings a refreshing twist to the standard spy’s “bit on the side”, and conveys an innocence and sternness in pivotal scenes. Russian villains and henchmen don’t make too much of an impact, but then again the majority are there to be dispatched, though a little more development wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Finally, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger and Bill Skarsgard make impacts as a turncoat spy running for safety, a mysterious middleman for getting into the east, and a “fixer” on the eastern side. Marsan’s hangdog features, Schweiger’s stoic, stony features and Skarsgard’s youthful energy make their characters more notable than they might otherwise have been.

A distinctive, excellent and retroactively 80s action thriller, Atomic Blonde is excellent, with a strong performance from Theron leading the way. It’s definitely worth a watch for action fans, and does a great job of bringing that 80s retro cool back in a genuinely fun and dynamic way.

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