Atomic Blonde is another movie whose marketing isn’t quite indicative of the product that’s being released in theaters. What’s promised is a John Wick-style actioner starring Charlize Theron as a super spy. What we get is a Cold War espionage thriller with a couple of abbreviated action scenes—for the trailers—and one big one in the middle about which everyone who leaves the cinema should be talking after the film comes to an end. It’s got a lot more spy stuff than action, which is perfectly acceptable—just know what you’re getting into before going in.
Theron does play a super spy who goes by the name Lorraine Broughton and works for MI6. The year is 1989, right before the Berlin Wall is set to fall, and there’s a list circulating the streets of Berlin that has the identities of a bunch of agents on it. Lorraine is tasked with going to Berlin, meeting her contact, David (James McAvoy), and finding the list and assassinating a double agent named Satchel. The plot doesn’t deviate much from that, but there are double-crosses, heel turns, and a surprise or two to keep the audience on its toes.
It also has some action. Most of the action scenes are relatively short (probably under a minute) but are solidly crafted and entertaining. The John Wick comparison exists because Atomic Blonde has been directed by David Leitch, one of the men behind the Keanu Reeves actioner. Most of them don’t have lots of quick cuts, which is great because it allows you to have time to get your bearings, figure out who’s doing what to whom, and appreciate the choreography of the fights.
The scene that I think everyone will be talking about comes somewhere around the midway point of Atomic Blonde, and has been crafted to appear like a single-take action scene that goes on for several minutes and has some of the most brutal hand-to-hand action you’ll see this year—and then tacks on a car chase at the end for good measure. I’m about 80% sure there are edits and they’ve just been hidden, but it’s impressive regardless. It’s a fantastic thrill ride of a sequence.
Atomic Blonde is an enjoyable espionage thriller that’s punctuated by a fantastic action sequence which is almost good enough to make you completely forgive a plot that leaves a lot to be desired.
What stands out, in addition, is how brutal the scene is and how the film treats the wounds that come from its action. We see Lorraine take a couple of ice baths, the makeup continuity that showcases the damage done to her body is on point, and we can feel the blows and how much of a struggle it is to keep going while the action is playing out. In that multi-minute scene, for example, two of the characters take a good 20-30 seconds just to get to their feet and catch their breath after going toe-to-toe for some time and exhausting their energy. It feels real.
The story is fine, if a little predictable and ultimately inconsequential. It doesn’t want to tackle the political climate of the time and while it focuses a lot on the spy stuff, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before—and, at times, gets a little too cliche. You can probably figure out most of the character beats way before the movie wants you to. The list is a MacGuffin and only serves as an excuse to get us to Berlin.
Charlize Theron kills it in the lead role (pun intended), bringing a steely determination, an affected English accent, and just enough hints at the toll the whole thing is taking on her to give you a bit of insight into the person behind the spy mystique. In a shallower role is James McAvoy, who is a lot of fun as a supporting character. John Goodman and Toby Jones show up from Langley and MI6 respectively to debrief Lorraine. The acting isn’t why you go to this movie, but it’s stronger than it arguably had to be.
Atomic Blonde is an enjoyable espionage thriller that’s punctuated by a fantastic action sequence which is almost good enough to make you completely forgive a plot that leaves a lot to be desired. The action is great, the acting is strong, the film looks wonderful, and even the makeup is tremendous—not something frequently praised. Its story is filled with cliches and unsurprising “surprises,” but it’s just here to give us fun scenes, exciting moments, and an excuse for Charlize Theron to remind us how compelling of an on-screen presence she can be. That’s more than enough.
Conclusion: Atomic Blonde is a solid spy thriller.
Recommendation: If you’re okay with less action than is being promoted, Atomic Blonde is worth watching.