“Who won, and what was the fucking game anyway?,” James McAvoy’s David Percival says while staring directly at the camera, and staring into the minds of a confused audience. Throughout Atomic Blonde, John Wick co-director David Leitch and writer Kurt Johnstad firmly keep their tongue in cheek. Charlize Theron’s eponymous Lorraine Broughton escapes into a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker when she’s worried about who is tailing her, and Kurt Loder discusses the use of sampling on MTV, while a sampled song plays on the soundtrack.
But due to Leitch’s history with and Atomic Blonde’s stylized, blue-tinted action, it’s hard not to be reminded of Atomic Blonde’s most obvious cheeky reference, that of the Keanu Reeves-led Wick franchise. Especially considering the aforementioned quote, which points out Atomic Blonde’s biggest flaw: a nonsensical plot that only reminds of the elegant simplicity of Wick. While Wick made fun of the genre’s intricacies by pairing down revenge action films to their core elements, Atomic Blonde doubles down on the confusion and complicates its double-agents with convoluted double-agents. Despite the elegant cinematography and brutal choreographed sequenced throughout Atomic Blonde, it’s still centered around a story that not even the characters can tell what the hell is going on.
Adapted from Antony Johnston’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde has the style and coolness that one would expect from Leitch’s past work. Theron’s Broughton is an MI6 agent who must go to Berlin after the murder of a fellow agent, and retrieve a list of other agents that could fall into the wrong hands. Broughton is teamed with Percival, a Berlin station chief who lives his as self-indulgently as he possibly can, constantly chugging down Jack Daniels and hair inspired by Sinead O’Connor.
Set in 1989, days before the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde sets its story amid the end of the Cold War, but rarely does anything with its locale. Reagan plays on TVs in hotel rooms and one scene prominently begins among a protest, but not much is done with its unique setting. Instead of making some deeper message, Leitch is far more interested in doing cool shit with a fantastic soundtrack, and in this goal, he greatly succeeds. Much like Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde sets scenes we’ve seen before in other films with atypical song choices that add to the fun. Watching Charlize Theron kill people a room full of men to George Michael’s “Father Figure” or seeing a man get beat to death with a skateboard while Nena’s “99 Luftballons” plays on a boombox is when Atomic Blonde finds its groove and thrives.
But Atomic Blonde’s action would be nothing without Theron’s performance, which continues Theron’s apparent goal to become the greatest woman in modern action films. And it’s working. Theron – who does her own stunts – is electric in every scene, even if she’s just chain-smoking cigarettes and downing another Stoli on the rocks. Like in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron plays Broughton as the toughest person in any room she’s in, yet with an underlying vulnerability that only makes itself known when she’s alone.
In Atomic Blonde’s best scene, Broughton is guarding Eddie Marsan’s Spyglass from assassins through a staircase in what is one of the finest action sequences of the year. Theron is tough and determined, but Leitch also shows the exhaustion in each punch thrown the further the battle goes on. In this sequence, Atomic Blonde shows its strengths when it puts all the story nonsense on hold and boils down the action film to its essence: there are bad guys that we want our good guys to take out. It’s a thrilling sequence that Atomic Blonde could do with more moments like it.
Atomic Blonde works in the moments that play to Leitch’s well-known strengths: gorgeously shot action that is as surprising as it is brutal. Unfortunately, Atomic Blonde is best when its story is on the back-burner, allowing Theron and Leitch to take the reins and go wild. Atomic Blonde could’ve used a bit more refining in its substance to match the bravura style this film has in spades.