The frustration that continues to run through my body knowing that a film titled Atomic Blonde did not end on a shot of Charlize Theron removing a brown wig to reveal her natural hair while Blondie’s “Atomic” plays shall never go away. That said: Atomic Blonde, even without Debbie Harry singing “Oh, your hair is beautiful!,” is a total fucking blast.
Loosely adapted from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, David Leitch’s spy thriller is as action-packed as any film can get. With its cool color palette (blues, blues, and more blues) and its constant reference to the Berlin Wall (via archival footage, solid set design, dialogue, and poorl- graffitied on-screen text), the film hammers in its Cold War period and dishes out exposition relentlessly. At its worst, it feels as though a John le Carré novel was being given a high-octane Danny Boyle adaptation.
But the film is rarely at its worst, aside from fading back and forth between an interrogation room where the bulk of the exposition happens and the film’s real action: Lorraine Broughton (Theron) traversing Berlin in order to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents. Though some might argue the plot is non-existent, I’d say there’s just enough, but it’s occasionally too present due to the flashback structuring of Broughton being interrogated about her Berlin mission.
When Atomic Blonde is existing in the moment, it’s magnificent. There isn’t a frame of the film that director Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela put together that isn’t stunning to look at, with the crowning glory being each and every action scene. Much like their collaboration with Chad Stahelski on John Wick, the fight choreography is as inventive as it is impeccably presented, whether it’s a fight scene set to George Michael’s “Father Figure” or behind the screen at a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
The stand-out, no doubt, is the extended fight scene that takes Broughton through a large section of an apartment building, primarily based in a staircase, that is edited to look as though it was one long take. It’s not simply about the way it’s shot, but it’s a scene in a spy film with abundant death that actually takes the time to painstakingly show you how aggressively draining a real fight scene would be. As the set deteriorates, so do the humans who are delivering the blows; bloody, bruised, and stumbling all over the place from sheer exhaustion. The scene is simultaneously hard to watch and utterly amusing because of how rare it is compared to the casual violence of many an action film.
But Leitch isn’t only interested in the way people fight. He indulges in every single aspect of Lorraine Broughton’s life, be it her wounds, her penchant for drinking Stoli vodka on the rocks, or her romantic interest in both men and women. Theron is committed to every aspect of Broughton, and her bisexuality provides a surprising emotional through-line to a spy story that is otherwise easy to roll one’s eyes at when James McAvoy spends a grand portion explaining it away. Though it’s easy to argue that the interactions between Theron and Sofia Boutella, another one of the film’s many spies, fall into a number of problematic features that filmmakers have used queer women for in the past, it’s tough to deny that there’s both chemistry between the performers and a genuine interest in their relationship embedded within the messy script.
For all the over explanation and the inability to let a film end when it should (and with the right song instead of doubling up on David Bowie), Atomic Blonde never ceases to engage the viewer. As the cover for the LP that holds the many great tunes featured in the film (and the few new pieces of music by Tyler Bates) proudly says, this film is “An All-New Lorraine Broughton Mystery.” With luck, this will only be the first of many more mysteries to come.
Directed by David Leitch; written by Kurt Johnstad; based on The Coldest City by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart; starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella; 115 minutes.