Atomic Blonde is based on the Graphic Novel series The Coldest City, and centers around MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) and her mission to find out who killed one of her fellow agents and successfully transport an informant carrying a list of undercover agents in the field. The film was another attempt at getting a female led spy thriller series off the ground following such entries as Salt and Haywire, among others.
Charlize Theron totally owned it, which was to be expected. She’s one of the first people you call to play a role like this, and if she says yes you can stop looking. She’s in almost every scene of the movie and is the center of attention throughout. And she went the extra mile to be as convincing as possible by doing the vast majority of her own fight and stunt work. She was all in for this job and it showed. The supporting cast does it’s job, from James McAvoy as her partner to John Goodman and Toby Jones as Lorraine’s bosses to the various thugs and ruffians that she has to dispatch throughout. But no one sticks out like Theron here, be it by design or sheer force of will on her part.
Another good thing is that the story avoids the kind of tropes you fear from an action movie with a female protagonist. Lorraine doesn’t jeopardize her mission by falling in love, and isn’t dependent on any dudes to get out of the jams she gets herself in. She isn’t a kinder, gentler superspy and doesn’t need a nurturing father figure to take care of her out in the field. And while there are plenty of shots of her looking good while she’s working this isn’t some Charlie’s Angels style, hair flipping and runway strutting while kicking butt kind of deal. When the fight scenes come she takes some hits and doesn’t escape without looking like she’s been in a fight. I wasn’t expecting anything different given the people involved.
Lastly, the filmakers got the period right. This is Cold War Berlin, so getting things like the background music and the technology of the day correct are important, especially since this isn’t a high tech James Bond kind of affair (more on that later). Many a late 80s/early 90s period piece can be ruined with the appearance of a smartphone or a song playing that wasn’t released for another 10 years.
The story was kind of boring outside of Lorraine. It was basically your spy movie checklist: the shady bosses, the would be assassin turned lover of the lead character, the eventual doublecross, and the eventual ‘who is she actually working for?’ twist. And while that’s fine to include in any spy movie, there isn’t much offered here beyond that storywise. And clocking in at almost two hours, the movie suffers from that. There are points where it was hard to stay dialed in because the movie dragged in between set pieces throughout. One of the things that made the Bourne movies work better was that the scenes that didn’t center around Jason Bourne doing work will still interesting. That isn’t so much the case here.
Charlize Theron was like Dominique Wilkins on the Hawks here, soaring and spectacular but saddled with teammates (in this case, the story) that weren’t enough to beat Bird’s Celtics or Isaiah’s Pistons. This was a pretty low cost film ($30 million estimated budget) , and that hurt things a lot. An actress of her caliber deserves something bigger, like a Mission Impossible or James Bond kind of movie with the supporting cast that gets to shine, bigger stunts, bigger action, etc.
In a way this movie is Hollywood sexism at play in that an actress like Theron has to settle for carrying a low budget, smaller scale film instead of doing what Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig gets to do. This one is also not likely to get a sequel like the previous female led films I mentioned; no matter the success level the ladies don’t seem to get multiple bites at the apple the way that their male counterparts do. Atomic Blonde’s success rate falls in that grey area where a studio could justify going in either direction so here’s to hoping they take a chance on bringing the crew back to do it bigger and better.
Overall Grade: 7.5
Charlize is great but the movie as a whole is just a step above ok. How much you like it will depend on how far her performance can carry you. Don’t get me wrong this is not like Lucy, where it feels like they just gave up and hoped you’d focus on Scarlett Johannson so much that you’ll downplay all the lunacy going on. I won’t call it underwhelming, just….whelming. It’s neither complex enough to make you really think or simple fun enough for you to just sit back and enjoy. You do have to pay attention but the stuff you have to follow closely isn’t compelling enough to keep you dialed in or make you come back for repeat viewings to pick up all the clues. But there is potential for a better sequel if the studio wants to take a chance. I watched it On Demand and that’s my recommendation. Unless it just speaks to you individually this isn’t one you get to own.