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Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City and stars Charlize Theron, James MacAvoy and John Goodman. Theron stars as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton who is sent into West Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall to recover a list of covert agents. The film is directed by David Leitch, one half of the directing team who made the brilliant John Wick. Leitch actually left the director’s chair of John Wick Chapter 2 in order to make this film. That film, released earlier this year was critically acclaimed and financially successful. How does Atomic Blonde compare?

I really enjoyed this film. As with the recently released American Madethis film is not a masterpiece, far from it. However, it is extremely entertaining and scratched the itch I had for a fun action film. I will start with the negatives though. The plot is labyrinthine and the characters are poorly motivated. John Wick has a brilliantly simple plot – retired assassin John Wick embarks on a rampage of revenge when he is attacked and his dog, given to him by his late wife, is killed. This is its emotional hook. It also has the promise of action and a well defined main character. Atomic Blonde doesn’t share this clarity or emotional engagement. I tried to explain the plot to someone and it took me five minutes to even convey the chronology of events. Theron’s Lorraine Broughton motivation is simply to do the job and so she does it. No emotional buy in on that then.

The performances are solid across the board. Theron plays the ice queen brilliantly, and even though she doesn’t invoke any empathy with the audience she’s always watchable and throws herself into the action with gusto. John Goodman and Toby Jones give standard Goodman/Jones performances. Sofia Boutella plays a French journalist who embarks on a very juvenile lesbian affair with Theron. In the screening I went to, you could sense the collective rolling of eyes in the audience. Carol this ain’t. The person I liked the least was James MacAvoy. I am not much of a fan of MacAvoy at the best of times – in this he’s terribly irritating and his character is poorly written.

The setting of this film (1989 Berlin), allows Leitch to partake in the biggest trend in modern cinema – 1980s nostalgia. Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Stranger Things, Ready Player One, The Hitman’s Bodyguard – everyone in Hollywood seems to be looking back. I wonder why. However, in this film, Leitch does make appropriate music choices which fit the blackly comic tone. Any film that uses 99 Red Balloons as a grieving song is alright by me. The cinematography and lighting is sensational and Leitch uses camera movement to create a visually stunning film.

Finally, the action is amazing. It states its intent in the opening scene where a British spy called James is shot and killed. So this is not Bond, this is a different type of spy film. While some of the twists and turns in the plot are predicable and some of it is far too complex and underdeveloped, I was never bored. Around every corner lurks some new menace for Charlize to fight. John Wick had some sensational action sequences (the nightclub scene springs to mind despite it being ripped straight from the superior Collateral), and this film is worth watching for the choreography alone. If you aren’t a fan of very lengthy fist fights then this isn’t the film for you. It thrives when Theron is being thrown about by giant bleach blonde henchmen, only to turn the tables on them. It’s thrilling and brutal despite the lack of tension. One sequence in a stairwell is the best action sequence I’ve seen all year.

Overall, Atomic Blonde is a fun popcorn thriller, full of action and style but not much beyond that. It’s not John Wick, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of fun watching it.  

Atomic Blonde is in cinemas nationwide now. Image source: LATimes.com.