For those who actually like the idea of a female James Bond, Atomic Blonde will leave them starved for something better. The solo directorial debut of David Leitch, who co-directed 2014’s John Wick without credit, Atomic Blonde is a stylish but disjointed Cold War thriller redeemed by its visceral action sequences.
Set during the late 1980s just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde tells of MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton’s mission to retrieve a missing list of undercover agents in East Berlin and kill a double agent selling information to the Soviets. This premise sounds done-beyond-death, but Leitch tells it in a way that is multilayered to the point of incoherence. The film contains some thrilling sequences, but the movie’s confusing narrative leaves little for the audience to do but wait for the next gunfight or car chase.
Atomic Blonde has style over substance, but the film occasionally suggests it’s trying to be the latter. Every so often, the film gestures its seismic historical context with TV sets playing news reports of unrest leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It appears to be some sort of ticking time bomb, but this lead up to the wall coming down is never convincingly tied to Lorraine’s mission, and becomes distracting.
Its attempts at substance are spurious, but Atomic Blonde does nail its style. Though Leitch didn’t receive credit for his work on John Wick, Atomic Blonde bears many of that film’s stylistic stamps – neon lighting, close-quarter gunplay, and smoothly shot action scenes. Fortunately, action is where Leitch, a former stuntman, makes up for his deficiencies as a storyteller.
The crown jewel of Atomic Blonde occurs in the second half, a long take of Lorraine fighting off KGB agents who have entrapped her and a man she’s trying to smuggle into West Germany. It’s bloody, brilliantly choreographed, and has the brutish intensity of a Bourne film without infuriating shaky-cam.
Outside of this scene, Lorraine Broughton isn’t a character the audience wants to follow. Unlike John Wick, the script doesn’t adequately give us a reason to care about her. At the beginning of the film, another MI6 agent whom Lorraine was close to is killed and loses the agent list. However, no sense of loss hangs over Lorraine throughout the film. Whereas the titular character of John Wick was clearly driven by revenge, Lorraine’s motivation beyond following orders is a mystery.
Though the script gives her little to work with, Charlize Theron’s turns in a disappointingly one-note performance as Lorraine. Many publications have called her performance badass, but boring more accurately describes it. When not grimacing as she beats KGB agents to a pulp, Lorraine dons a vacant expression, never exhibits charm or humor, and even her lesbian relationship with Sofia Boutella’s French spy lacks warmth.
Ultimately, Atomic Blonde isn’t good enough to fill the female James bond void. Buzz for Charlize Theron to play the first female Bond began shortly before Atomic Blonde was released, but her performance in it is no calling card for taking over Daniel Craig. There’s an appetite for female-led action movies these days, but people should keep in mind that like all other movies, they can’t always be good.
Rating: 2 stars out of 5.
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