I wanted “Atomic Blonde” to be better than it is, but it is good enough. Just because this movie is a disappointment doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s certainly not as great as it wants you to believe. If you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ve seen all of the best parts of the movie, in order. Of course the previews make it look awesome because the studio just showed you the four minute version of the entire film. It’s honest trickery to be sure, but don’t expect any exciting surprises.
The global action thriller, based on Antony Johnston‘s graphic novel series “The Coldest City,” is set in Berlin on the eve of the Wall’s collapse. British spy Lorraine (Charlize Theron) is sent to uncover the identity of a bad guy who’s murdering all the best MI6 agents. Her contact in Germany, David (James McAvoy), may not be as helpful as he seems, and the pair go on a car wrecking, bone crushing sweep through the city.
There’s far too much going on in the confusing plot, and the exceedingly shallow characters don’t help matters. Yes, the fight scenes are strong and the cinematography stylish, but take out the showy elements and you’re left with a garden variety spy thriller that plods along under the weight of its sluggish story. The plot is crammed with too many “gotcha” twists and turns, a lesbian sex scene that feels forced, and standard issue spy thriller twists and turns.
Another problem with the film is that at times it feels like a “Baby Driver” rip-off, complete with stylish action sequences and set pieces set to pop music. Edgar Wright’s breakthrough indie film has cornered the niche market on the use of retro music to choreograph action, and here the booming 80s tunes are distracting and not all that fun. They stick out like a sore thumb and make zero narrative sense. The worst offender being a fight sequence set to George Michael’s “Father Figure,” with a climax that coincides with the ending notes of the song. It’s so hokey that I almost started laughing , something that was definitely an unintended audience reaction.
The pulsating 80s pop soundtrack isn’t even the most annoying storytelling device. This whole project is stylishly smug, with director David Leitch endlessly paying homage to other films (most notably “Inglorious Basterds” and “John Wick”), breaking the fourth wall, inserting silly combat sound effects, and showing off with mood lighting and splashy camera angles. He even inserts a vintage MTV clip of Kurt Loder discussing sampling music (“is it stealing?”) as yet another “hey, look at me!” ego-feeding wink.
Despite these major flaws, audiences will flock to see a female character beat bad guys to a bloody pulp with her bare hands. You’ve most likely heard rave reviews about the hallway scene: it’s good, but not great. The fight scenes overall are strong but hardly as spectacular as the film wants them to be. Sadly, they get super repetitive because the fight choreography is almost identical from scene to scene. If you’re looking for some good fistfights, this won’t disappoint you. It’s also super satisfying to see a woman in her 40s hold her own as a kick-ass action hero.
There’s enough to like about “Atomic Blonde” that it’s not a total disaster, and most scenes the feature McAvoy are wholly entertaining. Theron proves she can carry a badass chick film on her back with enough attitude and toughness to spare. Lower your expectations and it’s an enjoyable enough night at the movies.