Directed By: David Leitch
Written By: Kurt Johnstad (based on the graphic novel the The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart)
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella
“On November 9 1989 the Berlin Wall fell” we are informed by Atomic Blonde’s opening onscreen text. “This is not that story” we are next told—it certainly isn’t, indeed oftentimes Atomic Blonde is barely a story at all. The film, helmed by David Leitch in his first solo directorial effort, has a plot like a jack-in-the-box—built on a spring base that swirls and loops and relentlessly doubles-back on itself before ultimately popping and catching you off guard. It makes for a fun little espionage guessing game of who is really who and what side is which, even if the twists get too cute for their own good in the final stanzas. This plot however isn’t particularly salient, it’s more just something needed to contextualise the most possible ass-kicking on behalf of our protagonist, the blonde in question, Charlize Theron’s MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton.
When we first meet Lorraine she’s in an ice bath in Berlin, battered and bruised from head to toe with blood caught in one of her eyes. Something has obviously gone awry. We are then whipped to England where Lorraine is in an interview room, relaying the events of her presumably botched assignment to an MI6 superior, played by Toby Jones, and his CIA counterpart, played by John Goodman.
Lorraine was dispatched to Berlin just days before the falling of the Wall to both recover a microfilm containing the names of every active Soviet spy, and along the way unearth and terminate a protruding thorn in the British side, a double agent known only as “Satchel”. She was to rendezvous with David Percival (James McAvoy, high-energy and buckets of charisma on show), a fellow agent who has caught a case of the Colonel Kurtzs— “gone native” as one character puts it, enamoured of the pending nihilistic dystopia that East Berlin has become, rendering him a highly volatile figure in the equation. Mere minutes into her mission however Lorraine is forced to use her own high heel as a baton in an effort to combat KGB abductors, before she’s mangled in intersecting webs of falsehoods, double crosses and cut-throat ideologies. This, in turn, necessitates she kill many, many people.
Suffice to say that Atomic Blonde is a clear-cut case of style over substance. There is little in the way of character or subtext, gesture towards questions of morality and identity fluidity as Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay (based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City) might. It’s a notable cavity at the centre of the story, one that mars Atomic Blonde, without, thankfully, defining it. With so much aesthetic to tap into and so much punch to pack, one would be hard pressed not to askew towards style. What director David Leitch posits is a bone-crunching action romp content to only look skin deep, a film that plunges itself head first into a dirty but cool 1980s Berlin—shot through an electric blue filter, driven by a quintessentially 80s soundtrack (Bowie to Nena and everything in between), and drawing from a neon-noir, bustling disco sensibility —Atomic Blonde doesn’t so much as lean on its superficial strengths, as it does champion them.
Leitch is something of an aficionado of high-end B-movie action. At first a prolific stuntman, then an uncredited co-director on 2014’s action thriller and high-volume corpse amasser John Wick, Leitch has an apparent affection for the genre, an admiration for its physicality and balletic potential that carries over into his own filmmaking. There is something morbidly elegant about the way that Leitch presents Blonde’s action sequences, allowing them to play out with elongated takes and dialled down editorial intrusion wherein it is the choreography, chiefly performed by the magnetic Theron with a rigid grace, that serves as the action’s heartbeat. Leitch observes the violence with a certain matter-of-fact chill, tracking the action unblinkingly and liberating himself in the process from the confines of genre standard visual cacophony.
The touchstone of this approach is a sprawling sequence which begins as a fight in a stairwell, which then shifts into a hotel room, which then drifts into a car chase, all of which is miraculously depicted with the illusion of a single take, allowing us to hang on every moment of contact, every combination of strikes. It’s an emphasis on the performers and their movements, movements which Leitch permits us to truly see, that allows for a heightened sting to the violence, an added punch and heft that instils in the chaos real physical consequence. We see the violence clearly and frankly, we see Lorraine and her male foes pay for their participation in it as their skin tears and discolours, we’re allowed to admire the gritty slickness and precision of their motions.
It’s this, that stiff and stylish blend of bruising calamity, that serves as Atomic Blonde’s bedrock. So good, ultimately, are Leitch’s action sequences, that not only do they compensate for the film’s deficiencies, but they allow one to completely forget about them. Atomic Blonde transcends its lack of substance by sheer force of bold, battering, bravura action-fuelled will. This is a muscular film, one designed purely for the eye and bypassing the brain altogether. Is this a problem? To an extent, but the fact of the matter is not every film can be of real-world consequence and insight. The triumph of Atomic Blonde is it reminds us that not every film should.