AT THE CONCLUSION of Atomic Blonde, once the credits had ceased to roll and the lights had come up, a man several seats away from me and impressively wasted turned to his companion and said, or rather slurred, “bit pony, wasn’t it?” What our friend lacked in eloquence he made up for in accuracy, because bit pony Atomic Blonde certainly was. The film is a comic book adaptation that owes much to the James Bond franchise but more to the Bourne series in the sense that, like the title character of those films, our platinum-haired heroine is really quite bland when she isn’t turning someone’s face to mush. Ultimately the film is heavy on style and light on substance, despite the best efforts of a handful of those involved.
The film begins with the semiquaver kick drum intro to New Order’s Blue Monday and the murder of a moustachioed spy in Cold War Berlin. It quickly becomes apparent that the film is very self-consciously Eighties and very self-consciously Cold War. Expect, in other words, questionable choices of attire, mass demonstrations, lingering shots of The Wall, double agents, and the dulcet tones of David Bowie, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and Dave Gahan. MI6 dispatch top agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to retrieve a list which contains the identities of various spies and is at danger of falling into the bloody and calloused hands of the K.G.B., who, in keeping with Cold War cliché, say things like, “capitalist bastard!” and all sport facial hair. Broughton’s contact in Berlin is whisky-drinking station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who is interesting if not entirely convincing. McAvoy is reunited with Filth co-star Eddie Marsan, who plays a man with the code-name Spyglass.
Expect questionable choices of attire, mass demonstrations, lingering shots of The Wall, double agents, and the dulcet tones of David Bowie, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and Dave Gahan.
From the opening scene I was reminded of Watchmen. Like Watchmen, Atomic Blonde was based on a graphic novel––Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’sThe Coldest City––and is set during the Cold War. It also involves chart-topping Eighties tunes and regular doses of violence. But it’s the Bond and Bourne films from which Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad borrow most heavily. There’s an escape which is lifted from the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough, and a line of dialogue that that is almost verbatim what Dominic Greene tells Bond in A Quantum of Solace about the propensity of those around him to, well, die. Our heroine is far more Bourne than Bond, however. She is as nearly as possible to devoid of all emotion and expression and, when she isn’t mashing puddles of blood of someone or other, charisma. This isn’t helped by the fact that Theron’s accent is all over the shop, so to speak, to the extent that McAvoy’s own occasional lapses seem minor. Toby Jones, John Goodman and Inglourious Basterds actor Til Schweiger also feature and are typically good, and Sofia Boutella, moving on from the dreadful The Mummy, is suitably mysterious and alluring as a French spy.
David Leitch has something of a talent for choreographing a particularly gruesome demise, and in Atomic Blonde a set of car keys, and ice pick and a high heel (a killetto?) are happily employed as instruments of death.
David Leitch is better known for his stunts than he is for his direction, but he is nevertheless the man who helped to create John Wick and is hard at work on the second instalment of Deadpool. He has something of a talent for choreographing a particularly gruesome demise, and in Atomic Blonde a set of car keys, and ice pick and a high heel (a killetto?) are happily employed as instruments of death. The action sequences are brilliantly choreographed and filmed. A single-take staircase brawl and a particularly violent murder to Nena’s 99 Luftballons are particularly good. Much of this is to the credit of cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who also worked on John Wick in addition to Law Abiding Citizen. Annoyingly, however, Sela has a tendency to resort occasionally to camera gimmickry that has more than a passing resemblance to Guy Ritchie’s signature style.
Atomic Blonde is ultimately stylish but too often dull, and far too long. Once you’ve had your fill of the neon and the Berlin cityscape the tedious spells in between each action sequence become unbearable. The film might have been the sort of relentlessly violent action-thriller that is in the vein of John Wick or Mad Max, in which, it bears remembering, Charlize Theron’s excellent turn as Imperator Furiosa heralded the arrival of a new kind of female action hero. Theron is more than a worthy action lead, but the underwhelming storytelling and characterisation in Atomic Blonde makes it the wrong sort of vehicle for her acting skill.