REVIEW – “Atomic Blonde” Quite Badass, Despite Bad Motivation

by Joe Hammerschmidt

There are some who will say Atomic Blonde plays like the female counterpart of John Wick. However, director and legendary cinema stuntmaster David Leitch doesn’t appear satisfied with repeating himself. Our hero in “Blonde”, loyal spy Lorraine (Charlize Theron) is considerably more complex, and increasingly mischievous in getting her job done the right way. The one downside? It’s those same antics of glorified violence which limit the film from exploring more of its untapped potential than what’s shown on screen.

Using the backdrop of Berlin in the late 80s, at the height of the Cold War and mere days before the Wall is slowly demolished, the film’s tone is solidified. It’s beautiful, yet cold; charming yet also equally depressing. Lorraine, a hard-working MI6 covert op, has been stationed amid the chaos and treachery, working to track down arms dealer Alexsander Bremovych (Roland Møller) and prevent his counter-terrorism contacts from bringing severe harm, following the cold-blooded murder of a fellow agent, with multiple other Western-based ops under threat. CIA investigator Emmett (John Goodman) and MI6 higher-up Eric (Toby Jones) are her handlers, often appearing a little too eager to gather information from their entrusted operative. David (James McAvoy) is the reluctant partner, not quite thrilled at the opportunity to play nice with an effervescent partner. Yet the pair do as they’re told, often to the point where the killing exceeds mercy, instead settling for criminal.

Without sounding like a broken record, McAvoy’s bang snap firecracker to Theron’s M-80 is overshadowed easily by the latter. At times, McAvoy’s screen presence is almost unnoticeable; almost a shame, following the absolute winning moves he pulled earlier in the year with Split. Theron, however, soaks up the atmosphere at every moment, leaving a trail of sex, violence, and rawness, the combination of which hadn’t felt so balanced. She’s instantly the type of gal who will win your heart and have your way with, like her random crush on a French intelligence agent (Sofia Boutella); then when rubbed the wrong way, she will shoot a hole in that same heart. There is a seamless transition between Lorraine the cuddler, and Lorraine the suave killer; Theron sees it as an exceptional challenge, with Leitch as a respectable handler of that energy she illicits. Sometimes gratuitous, but never in need of jumpstarting.

Despite the sex appeal in play by its overqualified lead, Atomic Blonde bets too high on the playing field instead of what the plot speaks for. East Germany in the 80s? That works as well as it should. The overly 80s soundtrack? Slightly more misses that hits, with New Order’s “Blue Monday” the most obvious inclusion that it almost wears out its welcome before the first verse. A strong usage of David Bowie makes up for the immediate shortfall, “Cat People” to be precise; one of two things Blonde builds on with last week’s epic bomb Valerian, the other one being John Goodman in a far more substantial, and more charming supporting role, one that actually highlights the successful evolution of a great character actor.

And the violence coupled with scenery, coupled with stunt work? There’s an abundance of this lethal (in a positive way) mix, where many shots will leave you smiling at the effort made in looking its best, keeping in mind Theron went through rigorous training for her part. Yet an inherent goofyness is unstoppable; in trying to come off as comical, the film’s ego often experiences a slight inflation, notably during the more quiet scenes where Lorraine’s spy credentials often aim lower than the standard. Not to say the fight scenes aren’t good, but the imbalance between energetic and static will leave one guessing everyone’s motives. At least the few moments when Leitch, and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad try to play self-awareness for the good of honest belly-laugh make for the strongest yield; a random Kurt Loder cameo that’s essentially a time-capsule slap in the face is the best example in that regard, for any recent movie.

I enjoyed Atomic Blonde on the merits of its own principles of uniqueness, led by its star. Inspired by an acclaimed graphic novel The Coldest City, director Leitch envelops himself and his collaborators into such a world through which only bitterness reigns. Theron’s character doesn’t necessarily need to brighten up the place, just ensure its residents there’s still enough wood around to keep the warm fires burning. Regrettably, if Theron hadn’t gone ahead with the part, and agreed to perform many of her own stunts throughout, my opinion may be greatly changed. She’s the centerpiece in an otherwise challenging piece of filmmaking, structurally sound while lacking in follow-through. There is much fun to be had throughout, but much of that lacks in logic to justify the violence. It’s not as intellectual as it wants to be, and more shoot-em-up than it has any right to be, but this Blonde still carries a serious punch, one where a face shouldn’t be staring right in front of, whether a friend of enemy. (B)

Atomic Blonde opens today at most area theaters; rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity; 115 minutes.