When I first saw the trailers for Atomic Blonde, I was hopefully optimistic. They were rich in all the qualities a good late-summer action flick for adults should possess: high on style, visceral fight scenes, and sex appeal. But, I’d been led astray by trailers in the past, so I was somewhat cautious as I actually sat down in a (very empty) movie theater to watch it.
As it happened, I didn’t need to be cautious at all.
Atomic Blonde may be my favorite espionage action film released since GoldenEye.
This is an espionage film, so I can only give out plot generalities in order to avoid spoilers. Furthermore, while I do have a couple of complaints, these are sadly linked to events that play out late in the film the end, so I can’t actually complain about anything in this film without divulging key plot details! Since this is a spy film, that’s diabolically well played! Fortunately, these complaints are ultimately minor, and should not diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the film. So, onto the GOOD stuff (which there is plenty of)!
The film opens with the murder of a top MI6 agent in late 1989. His MacGuffin is stolen by his KGB murderer, and this sets his bosses back in London on the edge of their seats as the nature of the information stored in said MacGuffin is rather sensitive — a list containing the identities of every NATO agent in deep cover in the Soviet Bloc, which if it ends up in the hands of the KGB will obviously lead to a lot of dead agents. I imagine in real life, lists such as this don’t exist for exactly this reason, and if they do, they probably don’t ever leave the room they’re composed in for the same reasons. But, before I even have time to recite the MST3K Mantra (“It’s only a movie, so I should really just relax“), the film has gotten to the good stuff, and any chance I have for incredulity is lost before it begins — more films should do this. Don’t give the audience time to examine plot holes; keep things flowing and give them what the trailers promised them and you’ll be golden.
Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton, the MI6 agent tasked with retrieving the list, and for this, she is introduced to the audience having already failed in that mission, explaining to her superiors (played by the excellent Toby Jones and John Goodman) exactly what went wrong and how. It’s a brilliant use of a framing narrative, and it’s a credit to the film that knowing in advance that she makes it back to London for her debriefing doesn’t at all dull the stakes or tension. Her primary point of contact in the still-divided Berlin is David Percival, played by the ever charming and likable James McAvoy. Rounding out the primary cast is the lovely up-and-coming talent of Sofia Boutella as Delphine Lasalle, a younger and naive French operative working the same case as Lorraine, with whom she shares professional and physical chemistry.
Generally, when a movie casts Charlize Theron, you’re in for a good time regardless if the movie is of any decent quality or not — one thing you’ll always get from her is one hell of a show, and she’s a very dynamic actress with a huge range of skill and talent that is on full display through this film. Being a spy, Lorraine has to assume several identities and play different roles on her mission, which would give a sense of meta enjoyment for any actor, but Theron brings a particular relish to the part, and it feels like Lorraine is a composite made of a number of Theron’s previous roles through the years. Bits of the various heroes and villains she’s played all show up here, with a particular emphasis on her villainous qualities being played for more heroic ends. She very much is like Ian Fleming’s novelised James Bond, in that she’s a “hero” only because she happens to be working for the good guys. She’s unafraid to use any of the tools at her disposal to get what she needs, and her fight scenes really drive this home, with Lorraine frequently being physically weaker than her male opponents and thus resorting to using anything that isn’t nailed down (and even a few things that are) to get the edge in a fight.
I’m particularly fond of Boutella’s casting — she’s a beautiful young lady who has a lot of talent, as shown by her previous roles in a so-far too short career that already includes memorable roles in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond, and the ill-fated 2017 remake of The Mummy, in which she was pretty solely the only good thing worth seeing the movie for (I actually ended up rooting for her to win, despite the fact that she plays the villain in that one). As far as I’m concerned, I hope to see a lot more of her in the future. It’s a shame that she’s not used as much as she could have been in this film — it might have alleviated a lot of the impression that she was cast as someone hot to have passionate girl-sex with Charlize Theron, despite the ways she actually contributes to the plot later. Unfortunately, thanks to the trailer campaign, this is going to be exactly the impression taken by a lot of people as they leave the theater. Oh well. She’s still lovely in every sense with this character, and any time spent with her is time well spent, in my opinion.
But then, I’m old enough to remember when this was exactly the situation that James McAvoy was in as an apiring young actor in the early 2000’s, and he’s now a pretty damn talented and successful man (you have to be in order to fill Patrick Stewart’s wheelchair in the X-Men films), and he brings his A-Game to this film as David Percival, a man of hedonistic vices, mysteries, and questionable allegiances that will have you guessing right until the credits roll. Percival is MI6’s West Berlin Station Chief, but under the stress of living in the City of Spies has resulted in the man going completely native, indulging in German synth-wave music, smuggling, strip clubs, and other forms of debauchery. Guessing at his true loyalties proved to be some of the best fun this film gave me. He bounces between seeming utter incompetence and savant-like expertise at “playing the game” and helping Lorraine accomplish their respective goals.
David Lietch, one of the co-directors of John Wick helmed this small masterpiece, and boy, it shows throughout. His eye for superb action scenes is on full display at several point in the film. The action is tight, brutal, fast, and bloody. There’s a fight scene towards the end that takes 7 or 8 minutes and it’s all done as one continuous shot. There’s no music to it, which just hammers home the brutality. It’s easily one of the best moments in an already great movie. Like Sofia Boutella, I hope to see much more from David Lietch as a solo director in the future. Lietch has once again delivered a great action film that deserves to be counted among the greats of the 2010’s with signature flair. Sadly, it’s not all wine and roses for Lietch, as while the film’s dialogue is decent and results in a mission accomplished, doesn’t always feel like it soars to the heights it could have. McAvoy’s Percival hogs all the best dialog to himself, and other characters are content to operate in his shadow, though given his boistrous nature, this may be one of those things that ends up being quietly brilliant about the film.
Tyler Bates composes a great soundtrack (honestly one of the best parts of the movie — worth the price of admission by itself) and sprinkles in over 30 hits of the late 80’s, with 99 Luftballons by Nena featuring prominently in the film. According to various articles I’ve read online, licensing all the music on display in Atomic Blonde was a nightmare more intense than most of the fight scenes. There are no moments where the on-screen actions feels overpowered by the music, but Bates clearly understood where music helped, and where it would hinder, and as such, the movie would have been significantly lesser for not having him.
If you liked John Wick or the Jason Bourne films at their zenith, or if you felt that the Daniel Craig Bond films could have used some improvement, then you’re in for a treat with this one. Atomic Blonde is pretty much everything a late Summer movie should be. The action is bombastic, the cast immaculate, the music is perfection, and despite how the trailers make it look, the plot is tense, real, high stakes, and will keep you invested for the entire run time. It’s the best kind of modern spy fiction, and it’s not for no reason that several have hailed this as “the female James Bond” and fans have called it “Jane Wick” (heh). This is a movie that is actually better than its trailers suggest, and it’s an action movie that has delivered in a way that the Summer of 2017 has so far seemingly struggled with outside of Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
I will see it at least two more times in theaters and then I will be first in line to buy it on Blu-Ray.
As for you? Well, I won’t tell you how to live your life, but in case it’s been in any way unclear, I honestly think you’d be doing yourself a disservice by passing this one up.
I’m giving this a solid 5 out of 5.
I can’t recommend this enough.
Atomic Blonde released in the United States on July 28th, 2017. I did not recieve any compensation for this review.