I will make no bones about it: John Wick is my favourite Western action film of all time, knocking off Die Hard which comfortably held the top spot ever since the first time I experienced it’s delights. At the helm of Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) trudge through 1980s Berlin is David Leitch, the very same man who brought Keanu Reeves’ troubled character to life. This time around the team attempt an adaptation of Oni Press’ comic The Coldest City. Written by Anthony Johnston, the strip introduced us to a sensual, skilled and fantastical female superspy, who has to carefully and cynically navigate her way through a John le Carré inspired Cold War era Berlin backdrop. With source material this creative – and the chance for the team to play around with the adaptation and craft something really visually stunning – I had absolutely no reason to be apprehensive going into the screening. We’ve come a long way since Kristina Wayborn’s 1983 Octopussy appearance, a small part that was nonetheless contrasting in an era that saw women take a more subdued role. With a tremendously capable leading lady, if Atomic Blonde displayed the same wildly entertaining and imaginative action sequences that John Wick did, the price of admission would have been wholly justified. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
Atomic Blonde starts off strong, with a stylistically exaggerated CGI opener reminiscent of Sin City, and admittedly at first the film had me onboard. The initial colour palette and visuals made complete sense for an adaptation of a comic, and when done right (Sin City, 300) can provide an extremely engrossing visual journey. But sadly, the film becomes stale and repetitive. The story revolves around the seedy underbelly of a segregated Berlin, rife with organised crime and inhabited with disenfranchised and anarchic youths, drug lords, double agents, and spies working for all sides from the KGB to MI6, some of whom are just as bad as the criminals who populate both sides of the wall.
The film follows Broughton’s retelling of events that occurred during her mission in Berlin where she was deployed in an attempt to recover a file that would expose spies from both the CIA and MI6. In typical espionage fashion, she knows not to trust anyone and remain detached throughout her mission. Broughton is presented to us as a no nonsense agent, one who knows how to play the game, and knows when she’s being played. Leitch wanted to expose us to her emotional side too, portraying her as a hardened spy who has seen the most unforgiving and ruthless sides of humanity, but also someone who retains her complexity and emotional persona. Indeed Broughton does encounter moments of emotional conflict, with Theron expressing her character’s internal struggle and underlining mortality convincingly.
Atomic Blonde continues its narrative with Broughton being interviewed at MI6 by Toby Jones and a CIA operative played by John Goodman. The cast do an admirable job, and the ensemble gel well together. Atomic Blonde is littered with comedic exchanges, but I watched the film straight-faced. The experience didn’t invoke any major emotions from me other than moments of admiration for Theron’s fight scenes. I attended a screening at a relatively full preview at the BFI with the audience grimacing at the more gruesome fight scenes and laughing at the lighter moments and one-liners. But I must admit I wasn’t feeling it.
Theron’s commitment to the role cannot be faulted; she clearly embraced the intense and physically demanding development needed for the film she herself produced and developed the script for. Having said that, I was not a fan of the combat scenes. Perhaps I have been spoiled though, with my upbringing and exposure to martial arts, and a film catalogue that consists primarily of Hong Kong and Far East action films may have caused me to watch Atomic Blonde with a non-objective eye. As is the case with a lot of Western action films, fights seemed too robotically choreographed, Theron’s swings were too wide and lacked any sense of impact, and hand-to-hand engagements didn’t achieve the same theatrical flow that other films of this ilk succeeded in showing. Movies like the Jason Bourne franchise avoided this pitfall by showcasing fast-paced, surprising and inventive fights involving pens and books, and Leitch’s other project John Wick displayed the most impressive, entertaining, and endlessly watchable gunplay I have ever seen in the medium of film. Atomic Blonde did manage to show fleeting moments of brilliance when Theron picked up a household object or handgun, but anything hand-to-hand fell short of the mark. I did appreciate the characters becoming fatigued during fights, however. An amusing touch that I haven’t seen before.
Overall, the production of Atomic Blonde felt disjointed. A few odd technical choices were made regarding camera work and non-diegetic sound. The film does get things right; close up camera work and tight shots felt appropriate for a character-driven narrative, especially one drawing from a comic book. The low angle and side-on shots wouldn’t look out of place in a panel on a page of The Coldest City. And there’s a particularly intense fight where Leitch and DP Jonathan Sela frame the scene with clever camera work that really brought the audience into the bout. Elsewhere however, there were odd and uninteresting movements abound. Given the monochromatic illustrations of the comic, there was no frame of reference for the production. The artistic license used in the film became too much, relying heavily on neon pinks, blues and bright lights in general, resulting in a somewhat overwhelming and constant reminder that this takes place during the 80s. The music is relentless too, with a friend pointing out that all of the Atomic Blonde’s transitions were achieved using a pounding synth bass. The soundtrack wasn’t inspired with tracks seemingly taken from the “Hey! Remember the 80s when these songs were famous?” compilation album. One scene in particular blasted out George Michael’s song Father Figure, and the potential was there for Leitch to capitalise on the freedom of film and create an imaginative set piece. But alas, the song was relegated to merely being on in the background. The most attention-grabbing scene was a fight taking place in an apartment block, which demonstrated crafty camera-work but also provided a respite from the soundtrack. With only the punches and groans of the struggle audible, the scene became intense and gritty. Something that unfortunately wasn’t achieved at other moments during the film.
Atomic Blonde had potential and Charlize Theron’s performance was admirable. And I still hold David Leitch and team in high regard. They’re clearly capable of creating a truly entertaining and inventive action film. Sadly this time they only succeeded in part and Atomic Blonde plays out as a forgetful, mediocre thriller which doesn’t inspire repeat viewings.
To Theron’s credit, Atomic Blonde showcases her incredible skill and tenacious commitment to the role which allowed for moments of genuine entertainment. However, the film isn’t strong enough, with odd technical choices and an accompanying soundtrack that fails to elevate any set pieces. Atomic Blonde ends up being merely average at best. The film is bumped up one star solely on my respect for Charlize Theron.