Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Strong Violence, Language throughout, and some Sexuality/Nudity
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Kurt Johnstad
(based on the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart)
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones & Bill Skarsgard
In MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Charlize Theron proved that she could be a bad-ass action star. In stylish spy thriller ATOMIC BLONDE, an adaptation of the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY, Theron steps away from the sidelines and into the main role. Many reviews and a lot of early word-of-mouth have called this flick a “female JOHN WICK” and that’s quite a poor comparison. If you’re expecting gun-fu from start to finish with ridiculous high stakes, you may find yourself occasionally bored by ATOMIC BLONDE. However, it will likely blow away folks who enjoy unpredictable, adrenaline-pumping espionage thrillers that are packed with action, sex, and a killer soundtrack of well-chosen 80s hits. ATOMIC BLONDE is pretty friggin’ great in those respects and lands as one of 2017’s best action films so far.
After an MI6 agent is killed in Berlin and “The List” of secret agents winds up missing, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is assigned to recover “The List” and assassinate a mysterious traitor known as Satchel. Once in Berlin, Lorraine immediately finds herself immediately beset by murderous KGB agents, a French lesbian spy (Sofia Boutella), an eccentric contact (James McAvoy), and a politically turbulent climate (during the final days of the Berlin Wall). As Lorraine investigates her fellow spy’s murder, the whereabouts of “The List,” and the possible identity of Satchel, the bullets fly and bodies pile up.
Judging ATOMIC BLONDE strictly from its premise, this spy-thriller doesn’t sound all that original. However, the film’s execution, pacing that starts off slow and then throws a barrage of unexpected twists during the second half, and constant balls-to-the-wall style make this film well worth watching. I am kind of shocked by how much I enjoyed this movie. I was expecting just another fun action flick and I received a smart, suspenseful, and violent spy-thriller. Again, don’t expect a female JOHN WICK (like the marketing and countless reviews have compared this to) and your expectations will be appropriately geared towards what ATOMIC BLONDE offers.
Charlize Theron does a fantastic job of kicking ass and taking names as Lorraine. This BLONDE heroine is smart, sexy, and always tries to be step ahead of those who want her killed, though her mistakes add considerable intensity to certain moments in the latter half. James McAvoy is fun as her colleague David Percival, capturing a quirkiness and a hard-to-read nature as the viewer suspects that he’s not quite telling our protagonist everything that he knows. John Goodman and Toby Jones are enjoyable to watch as two interrogators, while Sofia Boutella adds extra sexiness as the aforementioned French lesbian spy.
ATOMIC BLONDE’s success also derives from telling a been-there-done-that premise in a fresh way. This film’s cinematography looks amazing (with lots of bright neon colors) and the 80s soundtrack just might have the best song choices of 2017 (arguably better than BABY DRIVER‘s never-ending feature-length playlist). The film’s narrative is constructed in a non-linear fashion with flashbacks and flash-forwards to and from Lorraine’s eventual interrogation about her Berlin mission. This allows for the film to feel like it’s constantly moving, even during the slower moments of character development and clues revolving around possible double-crossings (after all, there is at least one rogue agent afoot).
In terms of action, ATOMIC BLONDE excels in these moments. Accompanied by kick-ass 80s pop and alternative songs (lending authenticity to the 1989 setting), these scenes have steady camera work (none of that shaky-cam bullshit) and believable choreography. The action ranges from shoot-outs to beat-downs to car chases. No two action scenes are alike and the stakes are established early on, making these sequences even more gripping as a result. I especially like how the characters get worn out by their frequent confrontations. One of this film’s best fight scenes features Lorraine and a thug stumbling around as they try to go at each other. It makes sense that they would be tired, because they were both just thrown down two flights of stairs and had already taken blows from each other. Yet another moment (unforgettably set to ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry”) has a guy struggling to get a knife out of his back and it feels cringe-inducingly brutal.
ATOMIC BLONDE’s only big flaw comes from the final 10 minutes packing in possibly one twist too many and then not giving the viewer time to fully digest the new revelation. Still, this film is so damn entertaining from start to finish for a variety of reasons. The performances are great from every cast member and the entire film sheds its cliché-sounding premise through clever non-linear storytelling, kick-ass action sequences, and sheer style. Don’t expect ATOMIC BLONDE to be “the female JOHN WICK” and do expect it to be a smart, suspenseful spy-thriller. On those grounds, this flick is an absolute blast!