I guess I should have known way back when I first heard “Atomic Blonde” being described as “John Wick but with Charlize Theron” by a friend that it would disappoint me.
But how could I not be excited? It’s “John Wick” co-director David Leitch, and Charlize Theron, and spies, and fighting and all those good things. And then the insanely sexy, forgivably obnoxious trailer came out and I was bagged. Bring on the fun summer action!
And then, just like that, I sat down to see “Atomic Blonde” this week and the wind fell out of my sails. It is, in one word, meh. Some fabulous fight scenes (Leitch does know his choreography), a wonderful Charlize, a surprisingly fun James McAvoy, aaaaaaaaand a whole lot of nonsense that shouldn’t have dampened any of that but totally did. What a tragedy.
The official plot synopsis makes me giggle, so I’ll just put it here: “Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is equal parts spycraft, sensuality and savagery, willing to deploy any of her skills to stay alive on an impossible mission. Sent alone to Berlin to retrieve a priceless dossier from within the destabilized city, she partners with embedded station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to navigate her way through a deadly game of spies.”
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way, shall we? Theron, my glorious goddess queen, is super delightful and sexy, really putting her all into this whole “sensuality and savagery” thing, and McAvoy is actually pretty funny as her drunk, uncaring contact. John Goodman also makes a couple of appearances, and his glasses are kinda cool. No comment re his performance—pretty much everyone other than CT and JMcA is forgettable.
Of course, the choreography is great. Leitch has a long history of super awesome fighting and paired with cinematographer Jonathan Sela (who also did “John Wick”), the fight scenes are bad-f***ing-ass. Sela and Leitch love these sprawling long shots where the fighters bound across rooms and flip over stairs, opting to showcase all the talent rather than fake it with rapid cuts and shaky cameras. It’s effective and super fun, so that’s that.
BUT. There are a bunch of problems that got me riled up for a minute. First off, it’s the worst thing a summer action can be: overly plotty. Like, obnoxiously plotty. The whole thing about this dossier and the Cold War conflicts that come with it make no sense and it takes up way too much time trying to tie together all these ridiculous threads that nobody cares about. I was slogging between fight scenes and trying to keep my eyes open. Not fun.
Second, and I truly hate to say this… I didn’t like the 80’s vibe. It’s not that I hate 80’s pastiche generally, but I definitely didn’t like it here. Specifically the glossy, glamorous neon and 80’s pop soundtrack. It’s sexy for a while, but “Atomic Blonde”’s best scenes are really the gritty, grey Cold War-style ones that limit the music and disco sexy vibes to make room for Theron throwing herself at bad guys, panting and bleeding, with everything around her going horribly wrong. One hugely drawn out fight sequence in an apartment comes to mind. It’s disturbing, and its outcome is genuinely moving, but then smash cut to John Goodman eating a sandwich because “Hahaha we’re so sexy and funny here! More neon!”
Next to the grayer moments, the rest of the movie’s ultra-80’s slickness feels like a band aid — like someone knew they couldn’t pull it off without a sleek surface to revel in. It kinda pissed me off.
So, I dunno. Don’t see “Atomic Blonde” at home because the fight scenes need the big screen, but don’t go in expecting to be exhilarated. Maybe buy a big TV and the DVD? Or just see it and deal with the sloggy parts.
Verdict: “Atomic Blonde” is sleek and sexy for a minute, and then becomes monotonous. But the fight scenes are great!