‘Atomic Blonde’ Kicks Ass When the Plot Gets Out of the Way

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Atomic Blonde

Veteran stuntman David Leitch started out behind the camera as a second unit director working with fellow stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, the two eventually collaborating on the modern action classic John Wick. Now it’s time for Leitch to step out on his own with Atomic Blonde, an action thriller set in the late ‘80s as the Berlin Wall is almost ready to come down. While not having a clear, straightforward plot like John Wick, Atomic Blonde still delivers the goods in regards as action is concerned. This is an ass-kickin’ flick that sometimes gets hampered by some convoluted plotting, but when the action starts it’s a visceral thrill ride with few peers. Between Atomic Blonde and John Wick, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are bringing action cinema back to its roots, turning their back on the shaky cam chaos that has dominated the genre for a decade.

Atomic Blonde is set in November of 1989. The film opens with Ronald Reagan proclaiming, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is followed by a man in a bathrobe running for his life on the streets of East Berlin. He’s an MI6 agent and is assassinated by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The slain agent was carrying a watch that contained within a list of all the agents working on both sides of the wall, including a super-secret double agent known as Satchel. Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is called in by her superiors at MI6 to accept her new mission – traveling to Berlin to meet David Percival (James McAvoy), an agent working to secure a Stassi officer willing to defect known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), and secure the list that could prolong the Cold War for another 40 years. Lorraine can trust no one on the streets of Berlin and there are kinds of crosses and double crosses along the way as the thawing of the Cold War looms right around the corner.

The story of Atomic Blonde is framed in flashbacks. Lorraine is being debriefed by her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA liason (John Goodman), all of whom want answers to what happened in Berlin. It’s a case where the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, tries to get a bit too clever. Sometimes Atomic Blonde is a bit hard to follow with all its duplicitous dealings and schemes that aren’t fully explained until well after they happen. In the final stretch of the film it just becomes a barrage of reveals that don’t necessarily work, especially as they continue to pile upon one another.

Let’s be fair, nobody is going to Atomic Blonde for its plot. The selling point for this movie is the action, which is some top-notch work from David Leitch. This isn’t a movie that’s non-stop action, but when the action hits it’s astounding. This all culminates in an amazing ten-minute fight that is shot and cut to look as if it’s a continuous take. It’s an all-timer of a sequence, one that just keeps bringing the brutality in a visually clear style. Car chases, gun fights, and hand-to-hand combat make up the varying forms of action that make Atomic Blonde work despite its muddled plotting.

Charlize Theron is fantastic as the deadly spy. She’s got an icy demeanor that makes her lethalness all the more chilling when she’s taking on a variety of counteragents. Theron has never been sexier. The costume design for her character is impeccable and you can’t take your eyes off her whether or not she’s kicking all sorts of ass. There’s also an intriguing subplot involving a French spy (Sofia Boutella) that takes some unexpected turns.

Atomic Blonde has style to spare with its ‘80s soundtrack and Leitch’s fascinating use of neon to color the characters and settings when not in the harsh, cold exteriors of Berlin. Sometimes, however, the ‘80s soundtrack is a bit on the nose or seems to be cribbing from better movies, such as opening with David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” which is from an indelible moment from Inglourious Basterds. When Atomic Blonde is concerning itself with its wobbly plot or trying to explain everything that just occurred, it’s a total blast of brutal action. Action cinema has been long overdue for an overhaul that once again places a priority on visual clarity over a chaotic style that prioritizes immersion. Atomic Blonde has its issues, but when it comes to ass-kicking, few can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Theron’s chilly assassin.

Atomic Blonde
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

When the plot doesn’t hamper the film, Atomic Blonde kicks all kinds of ass with a brutal performance by Charlize Theron and great action direction by David Leitch.

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