It’s the tail end of the Cold War, weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A list containing all the active undercover agents in the Soviet Union (handily titled The List) is stolen by KGB operatives. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is tasked to go undercover to Berlin to try to retrieve it before it lands in the hands of the Soviets and assassinate a double agent selling information for them named ‘Satchel’. Whilst there, she rendezvouses with Berlin station agent David Perceival (James McAvoy), her contact in the city, and meets a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). But not is all it seems in a city on the brink of revolution
Atomic Blonde sports an all-star cast of venerated character actors. Alongside Theron, McAvoy and Boutella, we have John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan. It’s also the first solo outing for David Leitch, a stunt coordinator who got his fame as an uncredited director on 2014’s John Wick and will be helming the Deadpool sequel. It’s a shame, then, that Atomic Blonde fails to deliver where it really counts, and that’s its story and any likeable or compelling leads.
What worked for John Wick was that the story was not incredibly complex. He’s a retired, legendary assassin coming out of it to gain revenge for his murdered dog left for him by his deceased wife. It’s really economic storytelling, getting you connected enough to care but keeping it simple enough that it doesn’t need to plod the movie with exposition or major plot developments and keeps the action moving at a decent pace. This is a dense and really convoluted spy thriller that has a lot of explanation, a lot of connecting to the Berlin Wall, a few character threads woven in, a framing device where Theron is explaining the mission to her superiors, and none of it is balanced that well or in a way that connects you to the film’s narrative.
There’s a twist, in particular, that the movie kind of…reveals and acts like it didn’t? It’s rather confusing and serves to make our lead look like an idiot. And it just further shows how jumbled and confused the script is. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a slick action thriller or a Cold War espionage flick, and fails at both. It also doesn’t help that the background regarding the fall of the Berlin Wall…isn’t really that dramatically interesting. That’s why they add the stupid MacGuffin of the List to give the characters any motivations to do anything.
And it’s a shame because there is a lot to like here. Outside of its solid cast, it’s got stylish cinematography with a lot of neon colours and moody lighting to put you right into the world. It’s not Refn-levels of intense or all that subtle, but it does its job at making the movie look distinctive. Plus the fights, rare that they are, are pretty well shot and edited. The highlight being the staircase scene, pity nothing else here tops what an impressive moment that is.
Atomic Blonde has a lot of potential for a kick-ass flick with an exciting and daring action heroine let down by a subpar script. The great acting and excellent fight choreography cannot help how needlessly convoluted the story is or how boring or nondescript the characters are. It fails to provide anything it promises, which I hope this is more the fact that a promising director was weighed down by a lacklustre script and not a talented action director cannot create a compelling narrative by himself. John Wick 2 was made without Leitch’s direct involvement and never failed to deliver.