Over the past few years there’s been a brilliant resurgence of the action genre. With films like the John Wick series and The Raid series we’ve seen a great mix of action and worldbuilding, but most of those films have had a male basis. The exceptions to these have been the films with Charlize Theron, who’s quickly establishing herself as the new queen of action. Now, Theron has got her own action series to make her own, one that hasn’t had a pre-established basis like Mad Max: Fury Road, with Atomic Blonde.
The film takes place at the tail end of the Cold War, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a list containing the names of all the covert operatives for MI6, the CIA and KGB gathered by the Stasi going missing after the MI6 agent initially assigned to obtain it was killed. Following this, MI6 send in intelligence officer Lorraine Broughton to capture the list, with her contact in Berlin being David Percival, who has spent so long in Berlin that he’s gone native. Throughout the film, Broughton has to deal with the double crosses from all the other intelligence agencies operating from Berlin along with the growing unrest in East Berlin leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now the film does a good job at conveying the feel of 1980s Berlin the second that Broughton steps off the plane. Everything from the use of existing Communist architecture to the music to the clothing creates the feel of the 1980s which makes it so you believe in the world that the film creates, offering some semblance of reality before all of the insane spy action happens. When the spy action does happen, it’s more subdued, for the most part, than the trailers implied. Most of the film is more in the mould of John Le Carre than John Wick, filled with double crosses and doubts over whose side everyone is one, and in this regard the film kind of lost me. The plot was strong, but predictable and it never engaged me as much as I think it should have. Like I said, the plot is strong, mainly in relation to the relationship Broughton has with French operative Delphine, giving the film a good deal of heart and providing a strong emotional core for the final third of the film.
The performances meanwhile add to the quality of the film. Charlize Theron continues to prove herself as the queen of modern action as Broughton, showing off the physical skill of the character, with special praise going to the stunt team as well for conveying this side of the character, along with her intelligence. There’s also a sense of longing for a more normal life that Theron brings to Broughton, along with the knowledge that the spy life is all that Broughton will ever know. James McAvoy as Percival meanwhile is a lot of fun to watch, bringing across how the character has gone native effectively, showing off his violent, no qualms approach to his intelligence operations, with you never knowing what Percival is going to do next, making him one of the more dangerous characters in the film. Sofia Boutella as Delphine meanwhile adds some heart to the film, showing off her more naïve side, not understand the morality complexity of the Berlin spy game due to it being her first mission, along with a streak of intelligence that lets you know that you should not underestimate the character. In terms of the other performances, John Goodman and Toby Jones get some good work as Broughton’s superiors at the CIA and M16 respectively, even if they don’t really get much to do, Bill Skarsgard as Merkel, Broughton’s contact in East Berlin, is entertaining, showing how much control he has in East Berlin, making him a valuable ally, whilst Eddie Marsan as Stasi operatory Spyglass, the man who tries to get the list to the West, adds more heart to the film, showing his intelligence along with his love for his family and his fear over everything that is happening to him effectively in the limited amount of scenes he has in the film.
The real standout elements of the film though come with the technical aspects. David Leitch, the co-director of John Wick, establishes himself to be just as strong with action on his own as with a team, creating some incredible action set pieces throughout the film. The obvious standout of these scenes is a single take fight through a block of flats in East Berlin, ending in a car chase, which is a technical marvel, with lots of praise going to the choreographers to ensure that everything happened precisely when it needed to, along with the stunt team, particularly the trainers in helping to ensure that Theron did as much of the scene as possible, with it being difficult to replace her during a long take, if there was editing to mask when it wasn’t Theron in shot, then praise has to go to the editing department as well for making the transition seamless. The action scenes are brutal throughout the film, constantly highlighting how exhausting it all is, at one point Broughton and the person she’s fighting against can barely stand, let alone fight, with the make-up team doing an excellent job at showing all the cuts and bruises on Broughton after each fight, making her skills more impressive by showing just how much everything hurt. As said before, the film creates a great feel for 1980s Berlin, with the production designers doing an excellent job of recreating the architecture of the time for the scenes where they couldn’t film in Berlin, along with making great use of the existing architecture, making sure to highlight the different architectural styles to let you know which side of the wall you’re on. The soundtrack needs praise as well for capturing the feel of the 80s, a great selection of New Wave music, along with some famous German songs of the time being used, with some of the songs being great counterpoints during the action scenes. The music isn’t quite as well integrated as it is in Baby Driver or the Guardians of the Galaxy films but it still works in establishing the tone of the film.
Overall, as much as I did like it, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed by Atomic Blonde. Sure the action scenes are excellent, and Broughton is a fascinating character, brought to life wonderfully by Charlize Theron, but the plot is a bit too predictable and didn’t really engage me, although I can’t really point my finger as to why. That shouldn’t stop you from seeing the film though if you want to see some expertly executed action scenes.
My Rating: 4/5