There is usually a scene in every movie that makes or breaks it for you. It pushes you over the edge into loving the film or hating it. David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde has one such scene, and it is a fight scene so marvelous, that even if you end up not particularly caring for it, you will at least walk away remembering that one scene. If an action movie can have one scene that can be that memorable, then it must be doing something right.
Set in the days before the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Atomic Blonde follows Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a top-level MI6 agent as she is sent to Berlin to solve the murder of a fellow agent. Her superior Gray (Toby Jones) believes that an espionage ring is after a list containing the identities of all of the agency’s undercover agents and tasks Broughton with taking them down. In order to do so, she must team up with David Percival (James McAvoy) the Berlin station chief, and stop the threat before the list gets into the wrong hands.
Atomic Blonde has two things going for it: Charlize Theron and David Leitch. Leitch, who co-directed 2014’s John Wick with Chad Stahelski, opted out of co-directing John Wick Chapter 2 in favor of taking on Atomic Blonde by himself. With this film, Leitch proves that he is more than capable of taking on a major action film on his own, as he shows a tremendous amount of confidence behind the camera. Atomic Blonde is, if nothing else, a very well-made film.
That Theron is the reason to see the film should come as no surprise. While Lorraine is a fairly two-dimensional character, Theron imbues her with enough charisma to make up for the script’s shortcomings. She has gifted us with one of the best action heroines that film has seen in quite some time. One hopes a sequel is made so that we can learn just a bit more about Ms. Broughton, as we learn next to nothing about her in the film. The supporting turns from James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones are all serviceable, but they are given even less to work with than Theron. That doesn’t really matter though. This is Theron’s film, and she runs with it.
But you didn’t come to Atomic Blonde for character development, did you? You want to see some jaw-dropping action scenes. While the film is not filled with as much action as you might expect, the fight scenes that are here are expertly filmed and choreographed, with one in particular that audiences will be talking about long after they leave the theater. This scene, which I mentioned in the beginning of this review, begins in a stairwell before making its way out into the streets of Berlin, but is all filmed in seemingly one shot. It’s simply marvelous to behold and merits a theater viewing by itself. Come for Theron, but stay for this scene.
If Atomic Blonde has one thing working against it it’s that we’ve unfortunately seen all of this before. Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay, which is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston, follows the familiar beats of every spy thriller you’ve ever seen before right down to an interrogation being used as a framing device. It would be an understatement to say that there are a lack of surprises in the film. The whole affair is rather predictable from beginning to end, including (SPOILER ALERT) the 11th hour twist the film shoehorns in during its final minutes. It also suffers from being about 15 minutes too long. While there are a handful of action scenes, there aren’t enough to justify it’s nearly two-hour run time. There are a few too many scenes that get bogged down in disengaging dialogue and convoluted spy talk. It doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the film, but some tighter editing could have been used to speed things along.
Predictability aside, Atomic Blonde is still a rollicking good time at the movies with a strong performance from Ms. Theron. This film is all hers, and she leaves everyone else in the dust. Mix in some stellar fight choreography and a killer 80s soundtrack and you’ve got a great summer popcorn film. See it with a crowd if you can. The experience just won’t be the same at home.