Atomic Blonde (2017) – Film Review
Based on the obscure graphic novel “The Coldest City” this spy thriller is set in November 1989, a gloomy but incendiary time for the denizens of Berlin who are days away from bringing down the Berlin Wall.
Charlize Theron is MI6 officer Lorraine Broughton, a British super-spy sent to Berlin following the assassination of a fellow MI6 officer and the theft of a list of agents working in the city and told not to trust anyone.
The list is so valuable that it could extend the cold war by decades and mean the probable deaths of many intelligence agents on it.
Broughton’s a bit of an impenetrable ice queen, though; peroxide blonde, utterly professional and with an expensive looking wardrobe – she looks every bit the 80s spy.
She partners with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy, Split, X-Men series) who is her guide during an investigation to find the lost list and get out of Berlin alive.
The cast is rounded out by Bill Skarsgard, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, and Toby Jones.
It’s too simplistic to label this film as a victory for style over substance but while director David Leitch, who also co-directed John Wick, shows plenty of originality in arranging the stunts the rest of Atomic Blonde doesn’t rise above what is otherwise a fairly ordinary spy thriller.
We begin the film with a series of flashbacks during a debriefing back at MI6 headquarters.
Broughton starts the film battered, bruised, and emerging from an ice bath in a state which suggests she’s been through some pretty violent action – and then explains how her mission went.
We see tales of betrayal, intrigue, some increasingly brutal fights, and even a romantic interlude for Broughton during her time in Berlin which isn’t really dealt with in much depth.
The escalating series of action scenes for Broughton come as she conducts her investigations – and the stunts get increasingly brutal and bruising – culminating in a breathtaking sequence shot during what appears to be a single take in a crumbling East German tenement and memorably involving a stairwell.
Jason Bourne may have reinvented the Bond films but the stunts throughout take the genre to another level again.
Atmospheric music but a little too “on the nose”
It’s also becoming a theme this year to have iconic 80s music forming a powerful accompaniment to films and TV shows.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was the sequel to the film that kicked off that trend.
A notable recent film to do something really special with the songs used within is Baby Driver which even choreographed entire scenes to some well curated if occasionally obscure music.
Atomic Blonde is no different in terms of its selection of music from the likes of New Order, Public Enemy, David Bowie, George Michael, and famously a couple of versions of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” – in German.
Distractingly, there’s also some “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls – the second time I’ve heard it in a film this year after arguably a more memorable slot in La La Land.
And that’s where my twin issue with the music in Atomic Blonde starts – firstly given the title of the film and the look of its star there’s no Debbie Harry in sight on the soundtrack.
Secondly, some of the music choices are just a little too ”on the nose” for the scenes that they are paired with.
Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy were much more subtle with their music choices.
Music used well as in those films helps move the plot along enjoyably but here it only seems to act as a kind of moody detached wallpaper for the characters to perform atmospheric scenes against – and there’s plenty of neon serving that purpose already.
A pity, then, that Atomic Blonde could have been as charismatic as John Wick but falls short, seemingly too clinical and cold.
That’s not to say it’s not worth watching as there are good performances from everyone involved though and Theron in particular is stunning as the impossible to read spy – if only the script could have risen to the occasion too but this is the kind of film where plots can be overlooked by many.
Atomic Blonde (15; strong violence, very strong language; 115 minutes)
Summary: ATOMIC BLONDE is an espionage action drama in which MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is sent to Cold War Berlin to recover a missing list of double agents.
Rating: **** (Fourth star mainly for the action set pieces)