Proving that the no-hold barred mentality he so masterfully captured as co-director of the original John Wick was no flash in the pan, director David Leitch ventures as a soloist for the excessive Atomic Blonde and manages to collate enough action, sensuality, and humour to deem it a project worthy of one’s attention.
It doesn’t perhaps utilise all the ingredients at bay but with a committed central performance from Charlize Theron, and an ambitious script courtesy of Kurt Johnstad (300), this slick actioner proves a complex yet thoroughly engaging watch where no character can be taken at face value and any hopeful attendees expecting non-stop brutality best check their expectations at the door.
An MI6 agent tasked to track down the source of a lucrative list that could expose undercover agents the world over, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) takes a personal interest in the assignment when another spy she shared an intimate background with is murdered. Proving enough of an incentive to travel to Berlin to seek out answers, Lorraine earns an ally in David Percival (James McAvoy), an eccentric agent who acts as her contact whilst in the city. As generic as that basic plot description is, the real joy found in Atomic Blonde is in its sense of unpredictability, and revealing anything further would only hinder the viewer’s enjoyment of what ultimately becomes a highly twisted, thoroughly outrageous yet (somehow) suitably grounded feature.
The story’s Berlin setting affords the film a politically-charged environment too, and having it set amongst the Cold War in the lead-up to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall allows the production to embrace a cold, chaotic aesthetic, but those hoping for any kind of statement or historical lesson will be underwhelmed as this additive is more atmospheric than informative; it does however mean the 1980’s period is well represented through its supreme soundtrack, where the likes of David Bowie, George Michael, and Nena’s “99 Luftballons” are heard on healthy rotation.
However confusing the story proves to be throughout, Atomic Blonde is smart enough to know that Theron will remain the one ingredient that refuses to waver. Her character may be prototypical in theory but where the actress brings a real sense of gravitas to the role is in her refusal to be invulnerable. Without question her Lorraine is a force to be reckoned with, and she readily dispatches henchmen twice her size, but the stereotypical ease that a character of her ilk would find in doing so is refreshingly void here. The prime example of this trait being showcased in a late-in-the-game action set-piece that undeniably stands as the film’s best where, in a seeming unbroken continuous take, she fights off a series of villain-types along the stairwell of an empty building before moving the carnage to the street where it culminates in an exhilarating car-chase of sorts. It’s a scene that highlights how damaging a hit she can take as much as she dishes out, and it is inarguably one of the most demanding sequences put to film you will see an actress commit herself to.
Though this is indeed the Theron show through and through, the impressive array of talent on board surrounding her certainly aren’t slumming it either with McAvoy’s reliable presence succeeding in delivering the sleazy-cum-charming persona he has adopted many times before, John Goodman and Toby Jones bringing their seasoned professionalism to the roles of government agents whose questioning of Lorraine about the case at hand tale-end the film’s proceedings, and Sofia Boutella delivering on sensuality as a love-interest to Theron that develops far-less gratuitously than one might expect given the evident sex appeal of both actresses.
As mentioned earlier, anyone expecting non-stop brutality off the back of excessive action sequences best be keeping their expectations in line as Atomic Blonde is quite often weighed down with its mysterious storyline. The aforementioned tour-de-force one-take combat scene is pretty much the exception as the remainder of the film only slightly teases fight sequences, leaving Leitch’s film to survive on ingredients far deeper than genre expectations.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Atomic Blonde hits cinemas on Thursday, 3rd August.