Hot Take: As an action flick, Atomic Blonde delivers on all levels. If you’re looking for a thriller, though, the movie has a few problems. It’s visually impressive, even when Charlize Theron’s face resembles Sylvester Stallone’s in Rocky.
At the beginning of the month, I rank the entire release schedule based on which films I’m looking forward to see the most. For July, Atomic Blonde sat at the top of the list. Charlize Theron in a Jason Bourne-like role as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton set up as the perfect summer action thriller. Half of that ends up being true as Atomic Blonde, as an action movie, kicks tons of ass and delivers a number of beautifully crafted (and ridiculously violent) scenes in which Theron’s character finds herself boxed into a corner and must kick, punch and shoot her way out. The thriller side of the film, though, lacks a coherent story and doesn’t always make sense which keeps it from being on the level of Bond or Bourne. It might be splitting hairs to expect Atomic Blonde to work on both levels as the action is so good, it’s hard to penalize the film too much for what it lacks in story.
Theron is the driving force here. As the main character, she dominates the screen and has a magnetic presence throughout the film. There are occasions where a main character is so enthralling, it can overcome storyline problems and that happens to be the case here. Driven by an ’80s pop soundtrack and featuring the first credited directorial work from David Leitch (he was an uncredited co-director on John Wick), Leitch’s fingerprints on John Wick would likely be easily seen if you were to watch it soon after watching Atomic Blonde as the action scenes have some vague similarities.
The story itself feels a little regurgitated. It starts with the death of an MI6 agent who has the list of all of the world’s secret agents and now it has fallen into the wrong hands. I’m pretty sure that’s the plot of half of all spy flicks although maybe I’m just stuck on that being the plot of most Mission: Impossible films. It’s also set during the Cold War which, I get, is the height of the spy game but, at the same time, it makes the movie feel a little played. It takes a little time for Atomic Blonde to get going even though you know where it’s headed after we see the MI6 agent murdered and then flash forward to “10 Days Later” and see a bloodied, beaten and bruised Theron emerge from a tub full of ice. It’s an impressive image that stands out from a number of impressive images we’re treated to throughout the action flick. It’s similar to John Wick in that way as the visuals are memorable even in their most violent (and trust me there is plenty of violence throughout this one). Once we get to 10 days later, we’re immediately thrust back into a flashback as Theron’s Broughton is interrogated by her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and his CIA counterpart (John Goodman) about what happened in her attempts to recover the list. So, in the matter of minutes, we go from day 1 to day 11 and back to day 1 of the timeline. It’s a convoluted mess hidden and played off as slick. Or maybe it’s just a shell game in an effort to make this by the numbers thriller seem a little bit more complicated than it really is.
What the film lacks in storyline it makes up for with exquisitely choreographed action that features a number of close-ups of Theron’s expressive face which does a better job of telling the story than any of the convoluted script contributes. This includes a number of fast-talking monologues from James McAvoy who plays another secret agent David Percival who is initially sent to work with Broughton to recover the stolen list but doesn’t always appear to be working toward the same goal as the film unfolds. The film also has a lot of attitude and comes across with a lot of swagger. It even has its own twist on the Bond girl as Theron hooks up with Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), an undercover French agent also trying to track down the list who becomes enamored with Theron’s character while she has her under surveillance.
Leaving the story out of it, Atomic Blonde delivers a knockout punch as an action film and Charlize Theron, if she wasn’t already, has established herself as an action A-lister. Depending on the success of this film at the box office, it would be unsurprising to see Broughton brought back to the big screen for a second time. With a better story, Atomic Blonde could have blown me away. Unfortunately, we have to settle for some of the best action set pieces of the year riddled throughout a hard to swallow storyline that feels a little like deja vu. There are worst things that could be said about a movie and Atomic Blonde also maintains a high level of entertainment throughout and is never boring. It’s a fitting summer popcorn flick and that hasn’t been said enough this year.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
We knew Theron could kick some serious ass after seeing her as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road but that was in a supporting role. Now, we know she can carry an action movie as the main character as she does all of the heavy lifting in Atomic Blonde.
- The Soundtrack
The soundtrack feels interwoven with the action and gives the action sequences a more dance-like feel… well, if a choreographed dance led to blood splattered walls and bruises from head to toe.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
Maybe it’s just me but it’s starting to feel like McAvoy isn’t being asked to do much more than ramble incoherently through a fast-talking monologue because, well, he’s really good at rambling inchoherently through a fast-talking monologue. It’s not a knock on McAvoy but the filmmakers here could have done more than make him a cartoon version of his most cartoonish qualities as an actor.