Atomic Blonde opens up with a thumping score, punctuated with New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and doesn’t let up. Over the next two hours, the film hits all the music-video notes of a popular ’80s playlist with a Euro flair—it’s retro for us, but time appropriate for Berlin in 1989, the moment right before the wave of the Cold War would crash onto the Berlin Wall. In a story taking place primarily between the two sides of Berlin, Charlize Theron plays an MI6 agent tasked with getting a list out of the East and back to her handlers. Of course, it’s a list of all field agents and their contacts, so it’s a crucial item to track down so that it doesn’t extend the Cold War for another 40 years.
However, like any good spy thriller, the “list” is really just a MacGuffin on which to hang the character interactions. In a city full of spies, who can Theron’s Lorraine trust? The film tries to build tension as she follows the trail of the list, but it doesn’t quite succeed there. Where it does succeed is the action scenes—which is no surprise, as director David Leitch, on his own for the first time, knows how to block and film a fight. Coming off a long history as a stunt man, and having dipped his toes in the directing waters with John Wick, Leitch knows a thing or two about action.
The greatest compliment I can give this film is that the fights feel real. Leitch doesn’t do a lot of quick cuts in these scenes, instead letting the camera follow the flow of the action. And these fights are brutal: the characters feel every hit and punch, and even when they come out on top, they will still be carrying the repercussions with them afterwards. In fact, the director goes out of his way to show the long-term effect this life has on these people. Lorraine’s actions get slower as the film progresses, and you see her trying to do everything she can to end things quickly so that she can retain what little energy she has left. It’s a nice touch, calling to mind the drawn-out fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live (really, that’s one scene, and Atomic Blonde delivers so many more) and the tension of Dustin Hoffman’s character defending his home in Straw Dogs (or really any Sam Peckinpah film).
What didn’t work for me on a personal level was the deadness inside the characters. They’re fighting to live, but they have nothing to live for. They carry on because of a natural survival instinct, but there’s no love. There’s one seduction scene in the film, and Lorraine even admits she’s doing it just to get information and gain any little edge she can. It’s a jaded, cynical outlook that permeates the film, not something you generally get from a widescreen release. But Atomic Blonde has a point it’s trying to make with this, and it does it well, even if I didn’t like it.
In short, the action scenes deliver, and carry the film, but don’t expect deep characterizations or real intrigue. If you’re hoping for a more standard spy-thriller fare, I would recommend Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (either the original or the 2011 remake—both are excellent). Otherwise, Atomic Blonde is a worthy action film that strengthens Theron’s legacy of picking strong female-led films.