Atomic Blonde is a fun, 80s romp of an action movie with a performance announcing Charlize Theron as our next great action heroine
There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through Atomic Blonde that can only be summed up as “that scene.” It’s the scene that will stick with you at the end movie. At the end of it, I sighed under my breath, “oh my god,” in awe. David Leitch, the stuntman turned director best known for John Wick, knows how to capture action the same way he knows how to choreograph it.
Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, which isn’t surprising watching the film. Every frame feels like it could be a comic panel. Tight close-ups on the characters are given equal weight as the epic wide shots. The opening text explains how the Berlin Wall would eventually come to fall before quickly clarifying that this is now that story. The movie is framed by a debriefing of Lorraine (Charlize Theron), an MI6 operative that went rogue in the days leading up to the fall of the wall. When we first see our protagonist, she rises out of a bathtub filled with ice badly bruised across her entire body. “What happened? ” you might ask. Well, that’s exactly what MI6’s Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and the CIA’s Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) are trying to figure out.
By framing the movie as a debriefing where Lorraine is telling us the story of the past ten days, the rest of the movie is essentially told by an unreliable narrator. One that is especially hostile towards her interrogators. It makes the twisting plot all the more interesting. She is tasked with going to Berlin to find a list containing secrets of the agents in Berlin. It’s the classic espionage movie setup, but Leitch has fun with it. Throughout the movie spies, assassins, and double agents are thrown at Lorraine. Secret messages are traded. It feels like a classic spy movie.
David Leitch doesn’t hold back when it comes to action sequences. Though, he uses them sparingly. Unlike John Wick, Atomic Blonde isn’t non-stop action. It allows time to build relationships and character. Even if the story does get lost in the plot heavy second act, stylistically it’s beautiful to watch. It also helps that they’re undercut with 80s hits like “Father Figure,” “99 Luftballoons,” “Voices Carry” and “Under Pressure.” It’s bright, it’s efficient, and it has a musicality to it that makes it a pleasure to watch.
The first and last thirds of the movie, though, are what makes Atomic Blonde great and a delight to watch. The first real action sequence of the movie shows Lorraine fighting her way out of a car, then fighting her way out of an upper floor apartment. So much of the movie’s action is her escaping. It’s almost as if she never intends to get into fights. It’s refreshing considering so many action movies today are focused on getting to something or getting revenge. The violence in this movie is necessary, but it’s never lingered on.
However, for all the incredible action, well-curated soundtrack, and sleek directing choices, it’s the actors that elevate it past the page. Theron’s impressive action sequences — she did most of her own stunts — and icy demeanor make her an instantly likable action heroine. And though she definitely gives the movie its edge, other characters give it life. James McAvoy does great work as the eccentric Percival and makes every moment he’s on screen count. Even the smaller roles make a huge impact. Sofia Boutella’s role as a mysterious woman that encounters Lorraine — in more ways than one — is a strong emotional core that with a different actress could have made the end of the movie very different. The standout in the supporting cast, for me, is Bill Skarsgard as an MI6 agent supporting Lorraine in Berlin. He portrays so much with just looks. He’s a surprising highlight in the film.
Atomic Blonde looks and feels different than any action movie before it. It takes every beat with a spring in its step. However, when it has to get down to business, it gets down to business. Whenever I think of the movie, I always go back to “that scene.” It’s tightly choreographed and shot to look like a 10-minute continuous take. You can’t do anything but hold your breath until it’s over. It’s that effective. Nearly every element of the film comes together to sell it. However, the film surrounding that film is pure fun. It’s the action romp that feels right at home in summer blockbuster season.