Action movies tend to be best defined by their boom boom, bang bang action sequences—and if you’ve got a couple great ones, that’ll make up for almost everything else. Atomic Blonde falls into this category. As a work of storytelling, the movie is a confused and dull mess. As a feat of action filmmaking, it’s one of the highlights of this summer’s blockbuster season. Enjoyment of the film will depend entirely on how much you enjoy the set pieces. They are indeed glorious.
Too bad everything else is such a slog.
The film is set in 80’s Berlin (hence all the neon and dance music) right as the wall is about to fall (hence all the spies and paranoia). Charlize Theron plays an MI6 superspy assigned to clean up a mess involving a stolen list of the identities of undercover agents (aka the McGuffin in the first Mission: Impossible movie). Once there she’s partnered up with James McAvoy, a wildcard party man upset with his low station in the spy game (so he couldn’t possibly be aligned with the villains, right?). She’s attacked by generic bad guys immediately after arriving and fights more of them every 20 minutes or so thereafter. Along the way she meets a sexy/steamy French spy (Sofia Boutella) to engage in sexy/steaminess as well as a number of recognizable character actors making secretive pouty faces. She’s also telling the story to her superiors—played by John Goodman and Toby Jones— in flashbacks. Confused yet? You probably should be. This game of misdirects and double-crossings doesn’t add up to much.
It’s easy to see what director David Leitch (co-director of John Wick) was going for with Atomic Blonde. He wanted to fuse the chilly paranoia of old timey cold war spy thrillers with the goofball glitz of 80’s action flicks. With a story strong enough to allow the spy chills to stand on on their own, that might have worked. Sadly, that’s just not how Atomic Blonde came together. This movie is downright dull when no one is getting kicked in the face. There’s little tension, the plot feels meaningless, and for the most part the characters are too dull to care about regardless of their suspenseful situations. Aside from James McAvoy having a ball as another goofball lunatic, everyone on screen just scowls in an attempt to suggest depth. Even Charlize Theron, despite all her impressive ass-kickery, feels like a blank slate standing around frames looking sad while discussing a convoluted plot no one cares about. It’s really a shame, because the spectacle is fantastic.
Leitch was a career stunt man before getting into directing, so the guy knows how to stage impactful action sequences like few others. All of the fights, shootouts, and car chases in Atomic Blonde are absolutely stunning. You can feel every punch and it’s all choreographed with the precision of ballet. Since Theron is wearing a bad blonde wig, she can easily be subbed out for a stunt-woman through hidden edits to make for some remarkable rounds of punchy-punchy. In particular, the climax is made to feel like a single sustained take that rips through a derelict building and then spills into a car chase on the streets. It is without a doubt one of the most technically and physically impressive action sequences to come along all summer. Yet, it doesn’t make the impact that it should because it’s so hard to care about the characters and scenario when it arrives. The film is sumptuous style with little substance, from the glorious punchouts to the neon glow and iconic dance beats of the 80’s setting. Atomic Blonde is brilliantly conceived as an action movie, but since everything between the set pieces is so boring and dreary, it’s not a particularly good movie.
Still, that action is damn good. With a certain deadpan sense of humour acknowledging the script’s weaknesses (you know, like John Wick), this could have been one of the best genre movies of the summer and possibly even kicked off a franchise. Instead, it’s a decent blockbuster with standout action scenes. However, that’s enough for action fans to get their jollies. After all, there are numerous beloved action flicks with completely disposable plots that became classics due to their iconic set pieces. It’s unlikely Atomic Blonde will become one of those, but there are a few fights and shoot outs that demand to be seen by any fan of the genre. Whether you do that theatrically and suffer through the nonsense for the best presentation or simply wait for the good stuff to get divided into YouTube clips is your choice. But don’t miss the highlights if you love when movies make stuff go bang and boom.