There are so many moments in Atomic Blonde where you find yourself thinking "Finally, it's going to become a seriously kickass film," that it's hard not to feel incredibly disappointed when you arrive at the end of the just shy of two hour film having never witnessed serious cinematic kickassery.
Oh sure, Charlize Theron's MI6 British agent Lorraine Broughton has inflicted her share of bodily damage on both friends and foes, but it's nothing more than a cosmetic collection of faux mayhem sequences designed with little more in mind than well-choreographed fight sequences that aren't particularly interesting and add little to the film's already flimsy story.
It might not be surprising that stuntman turned filmmaker David Leitch, uncredited co-director of John Wick, is at the helm of this stylishly realized yet mostly shallow endeavor that feels like a franchise wannabe but never creates enough interest in the characters or their stories to deserve a second go-around.
Atomic Blonde shows its cards quickly, one of many errors by Leitch in a film that is salvaged by Theron's gung ho approach to action sequences that still manages to never catch a spark despite Theron, also a producer on the film, obviously giving it everything she's got. The film is set in East and West Berlin in 1989 just as the Berlin Wall is about to come down. If you have any doubt that the film is set in Germany, the film's soundtrack will remind you with well timed tracks like After the Fire's Der Kommissar and Nena's 99 Luftballons guiding the action along with a wealth of Bowie and such oddities as A Flock of Seagulls' I Ran and 'Til Tuesday's Voices Carry among others. Theron's Broughton has been sent to Berlin to work alongside 10-year Berlin plant David Percival (James McAvoy), whose shtick is fun to watch but never really goes McAvoy's already familiar psychotic charmer routine. The two are trying to get their hands on an East German Stasi agent (Eddie Marsan) with a desire to defect and a list, repeatedly referred to as "The List," of spy identities that could wreak havoc in the region.
Atomic Blonde is framed around a post-Berlin debriefing in which a heavily bruised and battered Broughton is interrogated by her superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (John Goodman) whose adversarial demeanor is about as convincing as that time you tried to dress like Dr. Evil for Halloween. The truth is that Leitch doesn't try too hard to convince us of anything, instead choosing to place Broughton in increasingly harrowing situations with her wounds piling up almost parallel to the ever increasing body count.
Sofia Boutella, whom many of us have tried to forget from The Mummy, is actually much more satisfying here as Delphine Lasalle, whose motivations are initially unclear but never completely surprising. Boutella, despite being saddled with a one-note character, manages to exude a sort of playful sensuality that amps up the intrigue even if we never completely care about her character.
The film's best action sequence, a delightfully creative endeavor involving Broughton, multiple perps and a flight of stairs, becomes almost comical in its slow pacing and wore out its welcome before it wore out its participants.
If you caught Theron in Fury Road, then you already know she's capable of full-on badassery of the highest order. While she's occasionally impressive here, this flick feels like a distant cousin to that vastly superior film and Theron's artistic choice to tiptoe into James Bond meets Morrissey had me wishing for a little more depth and screen time for McAvoy's Percival. While the modestly budgeted Atomic Blonde may ignite enough of a spark for a strong opening weekend, the film's chances of sowing franchise numbers seem remote. Sub-par storytelling and Leitch's almost fetishistic approach to Theron's action sequences tell the real tale here and while Atomic Blonde may not be a bomb it doesn't come close to hitting its target.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic