David Leitch is a name most audience don’t know. He’s a stunt man turned director who’s worked in show business since the mid-90s. His uncredited co-direction for the 2014 sleeper hit John Wick established that he can do more than take hits. And what Leitch does with Charlize Theron and James McAvoy in the soon-to-be-released Atomic Blonde will rattle your insides and, just maybe, shake your cortex. Leitch’s adaptation of the Antony Johnston graphic novel The Coldest City is a story of intrigue set within Cold War-era Berlin with the fall of Communism as a backdrop. Unlike Wick, whose paper-thin plot propelled audiences through a blood-soaked, gun-fueled revenge flick, Atomic Blonde is a blending of genres that mostly hits its mark as the narrative winds its way through a convoluted plot which leads to some truly exquisite carnage as it unravels.
On the surface, Atomic Blonde is a straight-forward spy thriller in which MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is sent into Berlin to work with station chief David Percival (McAvoy) to recover a stolen list of agent identities and safely transport its source, a defector known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), out of enemy territory. But any good spy/thriller is more than just a simple Macguffin hunt. Below the surface, things get complicated. In order to make heads-or-tails of things, here’s a short-list of who you need to know:
- Gascoine (Sam Hargrave) – dead MI6 agent responsible for the agent list and Spyglass’s safety.
- Lorraine Broughton (Theron) – Highly skilled MI6 agent whose past with Gascoine makes the mission to complete his job both personal and professional.
- David Percival (McAvoy) – MI6 agent whose insertion into Berlin life made him go native.
- Gray (Toby Jones) – MI6 Supervisor in charge of Broughton’s mission debrief.
- C (Jame Faulkner) – MI6 Head responsible for Broughton’s secondary mission.
- Unknown CIA Agent (John Goodman) – Involved in Broughton’s debrief due to Agency relationship with MI6 and the danger of the lost list.
- Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) – KGB agent who killed Gascoine for the list.
- Beckmentov (Roland Møller) – KBG agent searching for Bakhtin and the list.
- Delphine (Sofia Boutella) – Novice French agent in Berlin for the list.
With this many characters at play, nothing is simple and no one is who they seem. If the stolen list isn’t recovered quickly, an already tense Berlin will go atomic.
Let’s get one thing clear before moving forward: Atomic Blonde is *not* John Wick. The marketing wants audiences to think it is and that expectation will absolutely obliterate any chance of really absorbing what’s happening. For one, John Wick is a singularly-focused, streamlined story. For two, as illustrated above, Atomic Blonde features so many moving pieces that the first thirty minutes are a convoluted jumble of characters, motivations, and plot points as each become established. However, once all the pieces are in place, Atomic Blonde transforms into a slow cooker on the verge of explosion as the narrative reveals itself to be a thoughtful, carefully conceived story that rewards patient viewers.
A story like Atomic Blonde is all about trust. Leitch, with a screenplay written by Kurt Johnstad (300), toys with the audience by splitting the story into two interweaving timelines of the past and the present. Doing so smartly utilizes every iota of Cold War Berlin to set assumptions, cultivate trust, and entrance the audience with ’80s nostalgia, all while brilliantly playing a shell game right before our eyes. In the present, Broughton engages in a debrief with her mission superiors which provides exposition, along with giving the audience a rest from the actions of the past. Theron, Jones, and Goodman play off of each other beautifully in the debrief scenes. Theron brilliantly rides the line of someone weary from the physical and emotional ringer of Berlinbut is also actively aware that every word she utters is under scrutiny. She may have left Berlin, but the mission is not over, which Theron masterfully conveys via subtle glances or guileless cursing. Jones and Goodman, both gifted actors, each use their limited narrative range to establish their authority and frustration. Their presence is clear, yet it never overtakes Theron’s. This provides several amusing verbal jabs as all three characters jockey for dominance.
As much fun as watching this trio in the present, the real meat of the story happens in the past. Theron handles the dramatic portions with expected grace – whether finding small moments for Broughton to compose herself inbetween fights or sifting through the day’s surveillance in the quiet of her hotel room – but she has never displayed this kind of physicality on film before. That would be impressive enough on its own, but the portrayal of Broughton as a cold, detached operative who’s straddling a razor’s wire of life-or-death decisions is really where the character draws you in. Other cinematic spies like James Bond and Jason Bourne tend to seem like disengaged machines, whereas Theron’s performance as Broughton reveals an interesting humanity beneath the steel exterior the job requires. Her ability to remain engaging and interesting in both timelines is no small feat. In direct opposition is McAvoy’s performance as Percival. Equally as brilliant in strategy and combat, McAvoy’s Percival is pure kinetic chaos compared to Theron’s Broughton. Where Broughton is style and simplicity, Percival embraces the underground punk rock that embodied the revolution of the era, utilizing disorder as a means of manipulation. From McAvoy, it’s a performance that appears initially as a whirling dervish which slowly reveals itself as controlled anarchy. Truly, both actors deliver engaging, entertaining performances of characters who continually poke, prod, and otherwise don’t get along while trying to fulfill a mission that could cost them their lives.
Helping to highlight the punk rock underbelly throughout Atomic Blonde are the various ’80s hits that ebb and flow throughout the film. Given its use in the marketing, there’s an assumption that the music integrates into scenes to elevate the narrative or convey emotional tone – akin to recent summer hits Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. and Baby Driver. However, while a handful of songs do add to the experience, the insertion of the youthful expression of frustration famous in 1989 Berlin largely distracts from otherwise beautifully composed scenes.
But what about the action? That’s been the largest selling point for Atomic Blonde. So does it bring the goods? Yes, it does, with a twist. Broughton is an expert assassin whose bare-knuckled brawls are precision-based. But unlike Leitch’s Wick who seems inhuman in both skill and stamina, Broughton is all-too human. She bruises, bleeds, tires, and makes mistakes. This is not because she’s careless, mind you, but because a fighter can take only so much before their body gives out. In this area, Leitch’s experience with stunts makes Atomic Blonde shine. The fighting is visceral, each impact truly feels real, and Leitch controls both the fights and the camera to instill a near-immersive feeling. Many of the fight scenes are highlighted in the trailers – hence the notice at the start – but they only give you a taste of how each scene goes down. The beauty of this is that each fight scene becomes more elaborate, more complex in style and cinematography, as they build to a near twenty-minute extended tracking shot following Broughton as she faces off against multiple foes from various directions. Honestly, not since 2016’s experimental Hardcore Henry has a fight scene so astonished, amazed, and exhausted an audience. But, here again, for all of their physical prowess, which Theron handles beautifully, these scenes are merely individual set pieces within a larger tale of intrigue.
Though Atomic Blonde doesn’t offer the same laser-focus as Leitch’s John Wick, this spy thriller builds to a conclusion that reminds you to trust no one if you’re going to survive and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. With a compelling narrative, fine performances from the entire cast, and unforgettable fight scenes, Atomic Blonde is bound to be the summer’s next surprise hit.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.