David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde has its gun-sights set on taking down the Cold War spy thriller film in its stifled, murky intrigue- but misses significantly. Its strong period and genre markers- fuzzy analog television, Reagan’s ‘tear down that wall’ speech, bold titles declaring the setting- Berlin, 1989 are drowned out to New Order’s Blue Monday with the film declaring in lurid graffiti spray: ‘This is NOT that story’. While on its ultra-violent, seductive surface, Atomic Blonde appears miles away from Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Guy Hamilton’s Funeral in Berlin and Eon’s early James Bond films- it remains rooted in the same conventional archetypes, Macguffins, themes and even set-pieces. In other words- ‘It IS that story‘ which you have seen many times over. Rather than redefining or reimagining the spy thriller, Leitch has merely dyed the screen in dark burlesque, with vividly stark lighting and an 80’s soundtrack, while hoping that no-one will notice how bland and convoluted it is beneath. Fortunately, Charlize Theron’s icy, domineering performance is the one weapon up its rather shallow sleeve that rescues it from total mediocrity.
British Secret Service agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is called in by her superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman) to account for her actions during a botched operation in Berlin. The divided city is in jubilation as the Wall comes down, but in the midst of chaos a British agent has been killed attempting to retrieve a list of double agents. Broughton descends into the seedy, dangerous city- the ‘Wild West’ in Europe- where she is told ‘not to trust anyone’. One person she certainly can’t decide whether to trust is her new partner- the hedonistic but effective spy-section head David Perceival (James McAvoy). From the moment she steps out of the airport, Broughton must navigate treachery, assassinations attempts and charm offences from Perceival, a naive French agent (Sofia Boutella) and a sadistic KGB mobster (Roland Møller). As the assignment goes from bad to worse, Broughton soon discovers she’s part of a much larger game- a cat-and-mouse hunt to apprehend the elusive traitor ‘Satchel’ at any cost. Even her own life.
After forcefully grabbing the audience’s attention in Mad Max: Fury Road and Snow White and the Huntsman, it is no surprise that Theron dominates here. She is a magnetic presence on-screen- able to exude a tough, cold and cocksure exterior while also giving us glimpses into the emotionally vulnerable underside of the character. She goes from sly, purring insults and seductive surveillance to down-and-dirty scrapping that sees her punched repeatedly in the gut and ‘keying’ an assailant in the face. Her bathing in ice- a ritual that appears physically and emotionally numbing for the character, also feels suitably soothing for someone who gets put through the ringer like she does. Theron just pushes everyone to the side (or into the wall) where even her accomplished supporting cast’s performances don’t really stand next to her. Not that they have much of a chance. While McAvoy turns in a decent performance as her roguish ally (with a disarming Sinead O’Connor hairstyle), the others are just effective in their otherwise stereotypical roles. Even Møller is sadly under-utilised as a cruel, one-dimensional KGB baddie (who shows his real antipathy for the West by killing a German teenager with his own American skateboard).
The (usually prolonged and gratuitous) action sequences are impressively choreographed with each punch, kick and gun-shot executed to the contrasting 80’s tracks and Tyler Bates’ complimentary synthesised, tense music. They often change, jarringly, from a sensually-lit, noir-like aesthetic (with Leith bringing cinematographer Jonathan Sela over from John Wick) to gritty realism that wouldn’t be out of place in a Paul Greengrass movie- some of these sequences are truly shocking and audacious. It is here, however, that it becomes clear Leitch is compensating with an emphasis on style over its clearly unoriginal and often confusing plot. While writer Kurt Johnstad is working from Anthony Johnson and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, this appears to be a highly derivative mixture of le Carre, Len Deighton and Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. That is to say that what you’ve seen before in Cold War spy thrillers- misdirection, double-crossing, anxiety over identity and relationships, ‘mole-in-the-service’, West-East political differences, etc- are all here again. There’s no discernible depth or innovation, with those staple conventions taking out any genuine suspense or intrigue. Simply take Sidney Furie’s equally stylised Cold War thriller The Ipcress File- but add neon-lights, blood-splattering and bone-breaking violence, David Bowie and lesbian sex.
Aside from gender and sexual orientation changes (which Theron makes work- but is also rather vaguely treated, even a bit exploitative) to the jaded spy hero- this is more retro than reinvention. The clear signposting of double-crossing; pathetic, clunky lines (‘Women are always getting in the way of progress’- a real stinker); and the contrived, twisty conclusion left me bored and tired. Atomic Blonde suffers from trying to be seductive, subversive, dark- like the 80’s nightclub culture it revels in. But in the cold light- its just a dull, overcompensating mess.