“We cannot afford an executive order in our disservice.”
For those hoping for a John Wick movie without the Y chromosome, Atomic Blonde will mostly satisfy that hope. Comparing the two is inevitable, as they’re cut from the same cloth by director David Leitch. But each is better in the own right, and shouldn’t be held against each other to properly work.
The Wick films haven’t spawned a possible TV series and a third film because of the exquisite action alone. They also have incredible world-building and develop existential themes within. Atomic Blonde works in the same way, but instead of creating a new world, it hops back to a bygone era and heightens it to a new level, based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City.
Atomic Blonde revolves around Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an MI6 agent sent to Berlin during the Cold War to bring back a dossier. Just like our political climate today, the Russians get in the way too. While working to find it, she teams up with an embedded agent David Percival (James McAvoy) to navigate her way through the underbelly of the city.
Along the way, she finds aid from a local at a club played by Sofia Boutella, whose talents are largely underutilized, making her mostly just a pretty face Lorraine has a somewhat sensual relationship with, a relationship she claims was only to extract information from. But as a spy, little of what Lorraine says can fully be trusted, as it’s her guarded personality that helps her more often than not.
This is where the film runs into most of its trouble. Depending on how you like your exposition, Atomic Blonde may not be for you if you despise narration and flashbacks. Almost the entire story is retold during an investigation conducted by an MI6 officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA executive (John Goodman). They’re good for a couple well-needed laughs, and this sets up just one plot point itself. But going back through time with this setup does get dry and feels like it could have been far more inventive.
That’s not a complete knock against the film’s structure. That’s only to say that Leitch’s direction is best when speaking in visual terms. Just like his last outing with John Wick, this is filled with cold neon throughout. While it’s starting to become an overused aesthetic, at least this film being set in 1989 gives an excuse, making for one hell of a great palette that’s boosted even more by the fight choreography and 80s pop soundtrack.
While you see Theron take down dozens of assassins, you’re welcome to the musical stylings of A Flock Of Seagulls as “I Ran” plays in the background in her car — take that, La La Land. Or maybe Queen or George Michael are more your speed. Something should be said for how each song helps the atmosphere of the film more than it helps the plot. These aren’t songs that match what’s going on, they’re just representative of the era and never try to match what’s on screen. As few people watching are former government agents fighting the Cold War, any attempt to ground the film in reality is welcome.
Still, it’s the action that most people are coming for. Few people will be disappointed by what’s on display here. While Lorraine doesn’t kill three people with a pencil (figured I’d break that news now), there are long, uncut scenes that have the audience’s jaws on the floor just like the bodies Theron takes down. Leitch seemingly combining Birdman and John Wick into one scene may be an exercise in futility on set, yet it’s is ultimately one of the most memorable scenes in recent memory — even more impressive when learning Theron did all the work, going into Tom Cruise mode. It’s hard to picture anyone else in this role. Not only does Theron check all the boxes in the fight scenes, but her strong sensibilities in dramatic scenes play out just as well.
Not since Kill Bill has there been an action film this empowering for women, and this should avoid that backlash that Quentin Tarantino received considering there’s far less corn syrup and red dye used here. Between Atomic Blonde and Sony’s release of Logan, not only has this been a good year for action films so far, but should also stoke the excitement for Leitch’s next film, Deadpool 2.