You know what makes this job worthwhile? After weeks of spending countless weekday nights inside mall theaters, which require fighting both interstate and parking lot traffic, only to find after two and a half hours that you would have had more fun doing laundry? Finally getting that movie that – yes, its a cliche, but its also true in this instance – has you on the edge of your seat, cheering for the protagonist, and keeps you captivated for those two-plus hours.
Ladies and gentlemen, Atomic Blonde is that movie.
Yes, it’s a terrible name, but nothing is perfect. And for anyone out there that fell in love with Charlize Theron’s badassedness in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, believe you me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This movie has it all: great late 80s soundtrack; James McAvoy continuing his streak of being the best actor in Hollywood at portraying wackadoo today; Toby Jones playing a bureaucratic weasel; and Theron beating Russian bad guys with a hot plate.
In Atomic, Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a MI6 agent sent on a trip behind the soon-to-come-down Berlin Wall to recover a list of Western spies. The list was hidden inside a wristwatch, but after the death of a former lover, it has fallen into the hands of a Russian spy who is on the verge of selling it to the highest bidder. Broughton is given David Percival (McAvoy) as her local contact, but despite being told by her handler (Jones) not to trust him, she is still shocked to see how far the agent has fallen. Percival has fallen in love with the underground decadence that working both sides of the Wall can afford, and does a mediocre job of convincing his fellow agent that he is still keeping Her Majesty’s safety his biggest work concern.
The film’s narrative is split between the Berlin action, and an interrogation room where Broughton is being drilled roughly a week later by Jones and his American counterpart (John Goodman). It’s setup as a standard mission debriefing, but it’s actually being used by her colleagues to get to the truth of what happened on her assignment, where she didn’t lack in both enemy assassinations and assassination attempts upon her life. Broughton, covered in cuts and bruises, unfurls her story with a wink and a nod toward The Usual Suspects.
That will hardly be the last film that the movie homages, or as a period clip of MTV’s Kurt Loder knowingly mentions, samples. Director David Leitch’s work here calls to mind multiple films, sometimes more than one in any particular scene, but perhaps none more so than his own most well-known film to date: John Wick. While he wasn’t actually credited onscreen as a co-director at the time, it has been widely acknowledged that it was the case, to the point where Wick is now officially considered his directing debut.
Like Wick, neon flickers across the screen throughout to illuminate the dark corners that Atomic‘s characters inhabit, and to more clearly define the violence that surrounds them. Also like Wick, Theron portrays a main character who may win the fights that she finds herself in, but she’s not invincible; while her stronger and more physically imposing opponents may lose in the end, they don’t go down easy. Broughton may be a good shot with a pistol, but some of her antagonists are zombielike in their ability to continue pursuit despite the multiple fresh bullet wounds they sport.
If there is a weakness worth pointing out about Atomic, it is that it manages to fall for the same trick nearly all recent spy films have fell for in recent years: they can’t resist throwing just a couple of extra twists into the plot. The Mummy‘s Sophia Boutella is here as a French agent who may have feelings for Broughton, or may just be pretending to have them in order to double-cross her, or may just be this film’s attempt at gravitas by giving us a character we don’t really know but still hate to see inevitably harmed by their line of work ala Clive Owen’s The Professor in The Bourne Identity (“Look at this. Look at what they make you give.”) And if anyone can really explain exactly which side McAvoy is pulling for at the end of the film, send them my way, because I still need some help with that one.
With Atomic Blonde, Leitch has taken multiple ingredients that shouldn’t work for mainstream audiences, and somehow managed to create an entree that everyone can agree on. You might not know this, but you have needed a massive fight scene soundtracked to George Michael’s “Father Figure” in your life, and this film is here to fill that need.