“Atomic Blonde” Movie Review

atomic blonde

     After stealing the show from Tom Hardy in 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” as the post apocalyptic bad ass Imperator Furiosa, as well as taking on villain duty in this year’s “The Fate of the Furious”, Charlize Theron returns in what could potentially become her own action franchise with “Atomic Blonde”, a spy thriller set in 1989 just as the Cold War was coming to a close.  Director David Leitch (technically making his feature debut after being uncredited for “John Wick”) essentially drops Theron into a very similar hyper stylized, but more retro version of the Keanu Reeves action vehicle, while also replacing the hitman origins with a gritty and hard edged “007” story fueling the on screen mayhem.  And Theron is no doubt up to the challenge, crossing the suave attributes the famed British Intelligence Agent is known for with a vamp like sexuality that turns the tables on unsuspecting male targets who make different assumptions about her character because she is female.

     With several notable recent features, such as Guy Ritchie’s take on “The Man From Uncle” and Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”,  having utilized the Berlin wall as a backdrop, the setting may right away not appear as fresh as the filmmakers might have intended.  Plus remember, there have been 24 “Bond” films to date, with another in the pipeline, which means the prospects of “Atomic Blonde” becoming a franchise starter seem bleak at best.  The story is based on a series of graphic novels called “The Coldest City”, which follow the exploits of MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) as a spy in the late 1980s when U.S. and Russian tensions seem to finally be cooling down.  In “Atomic Blonde”, Lorraine is sent on a mission to recover a stolen list of agents undercover all over the world.  We’ve certainly seen this plot device before, and know the obvious result of such a list falling into the wrong hands.  It is the list, as well as Lorraine’s relationships with other would be spies, that fuels the story.

     The marketing department has been sure to put out video footage of Theron and the intense training she endured in order to pull off the film’s multiple fighting sequences and actually perform some 90% of the stunts herself.  And the results are impressive, particularly with those in the third act, but that’s not say we haven’t seen the exact same stuff before.  It makes me wonder what exactly the filmmakers are trying to sell.  Should we be impressed with the fact a female is playing what has been traditionally deemed a male role as if female’s weren't capable of such roles all along?  Sometimes I’m not sure why females would want to imitate the worst habits of men in the interest of appearing to be part of the in crowd, but if flipping the script and kicking butt is what Theron wants to do, than she has certainly earned the right to so.  Problem is, her take on the character doesn't come across as wholly original, considering the first thing I thought of when Lorraine’s bleach blonde locks appear on screen was Gina Davis’ take on almost the exact same character in Renny Harlin’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight”.

     And while Lorraine’s close quarters hand to hand and point blank gun fighting would certainly make John Wick proud, neither of them are as fluid or believable as Jackie Chan or Jet Li, who have been performing all of the same stunts for decades, not to mention what the stunt crew behind “The Raid: Redemption” and “The Raid 2” were able to pull off in creating the standard for the kind of down and dirty fighting technique Lorraine utilizes in order to make up for size and strength disadvantages when compared to her multiple opponents.  And the many baddies who make up those opponents are certainly up to the task as well, most of which appear to be the same guys who were systematically dispatched by Liam Neeson at some point in the “Taken” trilogy, but function as worthy adversaries here nonetheless.  But the funny thing about a character like Lorraine when you witness such high skill and technique is the terrible way in which she takes care of herself.  In reality, one would need to train and exercise daily, while maintaining a nutritious diet in order to continuously perform at the high level Lorraine is able to, not to mention being able to sustain that level over a long period of time.  And yet on screen in scene after scene, she drinks Vodka straight, smokes like a chimney, and works during all hours of the night!  How in the world then is she able to work up the energy to take on multiple armed police officers, repel from a four story building, take on two more cops, and then walk away without so much as a scratch?

     Leitch envelops each scene with depressing blacks and greys in the background, while lighting his actors with neon reds and blues for nearly the entire film.  This of course gives the proceedings an edgy stylistic look, as if everything is taking place in a night club even though it’s not.  The script by “300” scribe Kurt Johnstad is effective throughout and offers plenty of twists between the obligatory action sequences that seem to get better as the film moves along.  James McAvoy, playing a competing British spy named David Percival, is his usual creepy self,  not skipping a beat since his performance earlier this year in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” while transferring many of his serial killer traits into his spy character here.  Sofia Boutella is also notable as Delphine Lasalle, a French operative on her first assignment who realizes quickly she is in way over her head. John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, and Toby Jones round out the supporting cast.

     Though Leitch has done a quality job here, I feel as though his work pales when compared to the more polished action spy films of late.  Not just in comparison to the “Bond” series, but especially when viewed next to the “Bourne” series, where the complex backstory remains relevant throughout and maintains a sort of tension that “Atomic Blonde” never fully achieves.  And nothing Leitch pulls off is as polished or compelling as the action and fight choreography director Paul Greengrass expertly created while helming three of the four Matt Damon “Bourne” films.  So the question here remains, does Theron’s presence as the central character in a violent R-rated action film warrant a sequel and potential franchise?  To me, it seems as though Charlize Theron was meant for so much more.  GRADE: C+