“If music be the food of love, play on…” – Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night (Act 1, Scene 1)
It may be slightly audacious to begin a review quoting Shakespeare, but follow along for a minute while this is sussed out properly. David Leitch’s first effort, co-directing John Wick, hit such immense heights, that the idea of following that film with another hit is unlikely. So, now with his sophomore effort, Atomic Blonde, he hopes, like Orsino, to get the audience full on music, to distract them from the real thing they want. Sure, the metaphor is a bit messy, but then again, so is Leitch’s film.
Based on the Oni Press graphic novel, The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde is set in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin wall. The time and setting are important to the film, but should anyone forget, the makers are more than happy to remind the audience. It’s your standard spy fare, gussied up with a glossy new sheen and action befitting a better product.
In Berlin, a MI6 officer winds up dead, sans a list that contains a slew of agents and their undercover aliases. British Intelligence decides to dispatch Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to retrieve the body, meet up with another MI6 agent whose gone “feral”, Percival (James McAvoy) and attempt to retrieve the lost list.
The first strike against the film comes early on, showing that the framing device is rooted in an interrogation room where Broughton is explaining the series of events that lead her back home, relatively empty handed and badly beaten. Due to the severity of the situation, her session is over seen by both a MI6 representative (Toby Jones) and his CIA counterpart (John Goodman).
The tale Broughton tells is one of love lost, lust found, double crosses, failed defections and brutal brutal beat downs. That last bit is what most people are hoping for when they seek this movie out. In this one department, they are sure not to be disappointed in the least. To say that Theron cements herself as an action hero for the ages, is the gravest understatement ever. While not as flashy as the male variations out there, you can tell her commitment to her craft is impressive. Without giving anything away, there are 2 fight sequences that will make their way onto all time lists before the year is done.
Theron’s Broughton is in almost every scene of the film, for good reason, as most of her costars buckle under the weight of their 2 dimensional roles. McAvoy is able to keep his head above water, sheerly due to the manic state Percival is constantly kept in. The interplay between the two is a joy to behold, but there just isn’t enough of it. Left to her own devices, Theron shows she is more than capable to carrying any and all films on her back. She relishes in this kind of role and acts if she’s in an Oscar contender. It’s a compliment to her and a detriment to a film that can’t match her level. Not only is she fantastic in the role, but it feels like she wants to make a statement in how her character is presented throughout.
Probably the best distillation to explain away the lacking story, is the application of a dirty social word: poser. With the time (89) and place (West Berlin) it’s natural that punks would weasel their way into the proceedings, but they’re nothing more window dressing. By inclusion though, they strike that connection to a poser. The looks maybe there, a slew musical choices fit and neon colors to give off a certain vibrancy, yet it’s all merely aping an aesthetic and feel, without ever embracing any of it. There’s so much posing on screen in fact that it reads a bit hollow, as if the filmmakers were aware that their number of plot holes was equal to the double crossings that transpire.
The most unfortunate thing about Atomic Blonde is that it lives in the shadow of Leitch’s previous film. That’s bound to happen when a movie becomes an instant classic the moment it’s released. Possibly with time and distance, his sophomore effort will gain a little more favor. As it stands now it’s a competently made actioner that leans to heavily on well worn plot devices. Owing as much to James Bond and John Le Carre, as it does to Spectre of Keanu Reeves, Leitch and Theron turn in a serviceable thriller with killer action sequences. At the very least Atomic Blonde can be called the best DTV action film ever made. A title that really isn’t too shabby at all.