David Leitch’s spy thriller Atomic Blonde (2017) is an ‘80s fetishist’s dream.
Aside from being set during the year Madonna was at the apex of marrying sex and religion, it filters everything through a heavily stylized, hyper-nostalgic lens. With its storyline resembling a smarter-than-usual Cynthia Rothrock vehicle, its hip soundtrack throwing around New Wave tunes with the regularity of forgotten Motown ditties in a Quentin Tarantino movie, its photography iced with a vibrant assortment of MTV neons, and its fashions peak Jerry Hall, not a thing about it isn’t consciously, intricately designed.
When Atomic Blonde is at its best, then, it’s provoking us sensorily. Its fight scenes — one of which is among the best of the decade — result in deep, bruising visceral reactions more than they do rushes of adrenaline. Its showcasing of the face and body of its leading actress, the unparalleled Charlize Theron, is an intoxicating experience in itself, reminiscent of the years when Alfred Hitchcock decided no other blonde was more beautiful than Grace Kelly.
But Atomic Blonde works similarly to Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), to which it often compares. The Hunger, a sleek vampire movie, is a masterwork of style, all chrome colors, swirling cigarette smoke, sex, and death. Looking at it is a thrill. But once it tries to cobble together a followable storyline, it falls apart, mostly because no plot can be as interesting as the slick stylistics coming before its coming to fruition.
Atomic Blonde has that same problem. It begins a playful, optically delicious action movie so singular we imagine that this is what the Bond franchise would look like if it were taken over by Edgar Wright and if 007 himself were played by a femme fatale. We have fun with it, expecting it to follow the same basic structure of one of those aforementioned adventures: Hero sets out to defeat a larger villain, but runs into various smaller villains along the way.
But by its final act has Atomic Blonde all but lost track of its simplistic charms. By then has it metamorphosed into the classic kind of overblown thriller with so many characters, so many betrayals, and such an overabundance of unclear motivations that its conclusion, which is supposed to be a twist ending made to arouse a hearty gasp, prompts a head-scratch and a long-winded omictempt at untangling the storyline with a friend while walking out of the theater.
Such makes us wish the film took on the stance of an action romp rather than wear the guise of a sometimes pulpy, sometimes gritty escapade. Because we can tell that it could. The plot is, after all, focally about MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Theron) quest to retrieve a stolen list containing the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. In the background, the Berlin Wall is edging toward its demise.
And yet screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, adapting Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, introduces too many subplots and individuals without caring to explain them. In watching the movie was I sometimes reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notoriously confusing detective novel The Big Sleep (1939), which seemed to make a point to drop names and places and hope for a response even though those said names and places weren’t developed enough to make us react when confronted by them. But The Big Sleep worked so well because it recognized its labyrinthine structuring and conscientiously focused on its slinky prose instead.
Atomic Blonde, though, is a smorgasbord of ideas and styles. Sometimes they mesh tremendously, sometimes they come together about as efficiently as a glassful of oil and water. It’s most effective when in the grips of a combat sequence or when Theron is sizing a man down.
Best of all is her movie-long interrogation by John Goodman and Toby Jones, which takes place after the film’s flashback-housed storyline but weaves in and out of the main event as a way to reinforce its standing as foundation. In those scenes, Theron is something of a descendant of Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell, minus the will-she-or-won’t-she anticipation of a labia flash. Clearly the smartest person in the room, never looking intimidated (if anything, she’s the one doing the intimidating) and smoking sensually. She even has the balls to insult one of the law enforcers sitting across from her under her breath. Theron, doing most of her own stunts, is a sensation in Atomic Blonde, topping off the action heroine prowess she showed in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and this year’s The Fate of the Furious.
But the movie is not as comprehensively magnificent as its leading lady. Once the neon fun, not to mention the marked dependence on shimmering style, washes up, plot elements don’t line up. And so we’re left in a haze. But when Atomic Blonde is great, it’s remarkably so, and it isn’t every day we get a female-led action feature so impressively acted and put together.