WARNING: This review features minor spoilers for the film. While nothing is revealed that the marketing hasn’t already shown, if you want to go in blind, don’t read it.
During the second act of Atomic Blonde, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) ducks into an apartment building after an asset (Eddie Marsan) she is tasked with transporting is shot. She hears commotion on upper floors and heads up to investigate, resulting in an all-out brawl with a series of mooks that goes down two flights of stairs, and ends in a first-floor room. Afterwards, Broughton steals a police car and is chased with her asset across a brief stretch of Berlin, using traffic and gunplay to get her pursuers off of their trail. But in an unfortunate twist of fate, the car ends up in a river, with Broughton now having to fight against the ticking clock in order to get out of yet another life-threatening situation.
What I forgot to mention is that the first two thirds of this impressive string of sequences take place inside a seriously fantastic digitally-stitched oner. Director David Leitch (John Wick: Chapter One) is operating on the top of his game here, masterfully gliding the camera along with every punch, kick, gunshot, and use of a desk lamp as a blunt weapon. It’s propulsive in a way that few other action sequences this year have been, and is without a doubt worth seeing.
The rest of the film, however, is decidedly more mixed.
Set against the backdrop of unrest in 1989-era Berlin leading to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Broughton is sent by her MI6 superiors (Toby Jones and James Faulkner) in order to retrieve a list of undercover agents in Europe. To do so, she allies with MI6 Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), but soon learns that the intelligence world in Berlin is more complicated than she initially thought.
As mentioned earlier, the action is definitely the film’s biggest strength. Leitch, Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela, and the 87Eleven action design crew work together beautifully, bringing to life multiple action beats that are as fun and breathtaking as they are brutal. There’s the aforementioned building-to-chase-to-river sequence, but other highlights include a fight in an apartment set to George Michael’s “Father Figure” and the final long-take shootout that ends the film. These are scenes that are going to inspire a whole new generation of action filmmakers, and the film is almost worth recommending on the strength of that alone.
The cast isn’t slouching, either. Theron brings a lot to the role of Lorraine Broughton, filling her with cold charisma and selling the character’s vulnerability both physical and emotional where a lesser actor could have easily failed at one or both. James McAvoy has a ball as David Percival, who is a one-note character that becomes entertaining just based on what has recently become McAvoy’s greatest strength: his ability to ham. Til Schweiger briefly appears as a watchmaker who feels like he would belong right at home at the Continental, as does Roland Møller as the leader of the film’s Russian squad of baddies.
But out of the supporting cast, the performance that really surprised me was Bill Skarsgård as Merkel, a black market passport dealer in East Berlin who becomes Lorraine’s sidekick of sorts as the film goes on. Skarsgård’s offbeat, Michael Pitt-esque looks serve him well here as someone based out of the local counterculture, and he brings a genuine kindness to the part that I did not expect at all, especially given that this is the man who’s already haunting my nightmares as Pennywise in the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It. If Focus Features has any idea what they’re doing, they should sign him on for a sequel as soon as they can do he can join in any of Lorraine’s possible adventures in the 1990’s.
However, rather unfortunately, there’s still a lot of movie to talk about. The film uses a framing device where Broughton, during a debriefing, recollects the events of the film to her MI6 superiors and a CIA operative played by John Goodman. Outside of one or two clever editing gags, the framing device does nothing for the movie, and actively detracts from the narrative, helping to muddle it and add to the runtime when this ideally could have been a shorter, smoother film. I haven’t read the graphic novel that served as this movie’s source material, so I do not know if it’s native to the book or if it was an invention of writer Kurt Johnstad (300), but it’s one of two major things that ultimately got stuck in my craw about the movie’s screenplay.
That would be yet another use of the infamous “kill your gays” trope. Those who have seen the trailers for this film are aware of a subplot where Broughton romances a French agent named Delphine Lasalle, played by Sofia Boutella. Theron and Boutella’s chemistry is through the roof, and even with the extremely male-gazey way their first sex scene is shot, their relationship is believable and downright sweet. It’s also worth noting that their relationship is presented in a rather matter-of-fact way, with no one drawing attention to the fact that it’s a homosexual relationship at all, which feels refreshing. But the way the relationship ends is frustrating and downright offensive, with Boutella being strangled in her underwear for seemingly no purpose except to make Broughton revert to “unemotional killing machine” mode in order to combat the ultimate villain of the piece. It could have, and should have, been handled much better.
Atomic Blonde has a lot going for it in terms of pure bone-crunching action, and Lorraine Broughton is a character I would not mind seeing the continuing adventures of, but the film is ultimately dragged down by the messy framing device and the cruelty with which the romantic subplot plays out. The action makes it worth watching, but there’s a lot of bad that goes with it.