The 400-Word Review: Atomic Blonde
By Sean Collier
August 1, 2017
Atomic Blonde is a cocktail of 2010s cool — an icy blend of John Wick and Nicholas Winding Refn, with a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack and an A-list lead turning up the attitude. It is absolutely soaked in style.
Substance ... not so much. But you’re not likely to notice.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a tortured MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin just as the Wall begins to crumble. The plot is mostly irrelevant, your standard who-is-working-with-who machinations mostly concerning a valuable list of global double-agents. The chief players are David Percival (James McAvoy), a British spy “gone native”; Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a guy with a lot of knowledge; Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a French spy who may be in over her head; and Toby Jones and John Goodman as higher-ups at MI6 and the CIA, respectively.
Without the gravitas, ability and icy gaze of Theron, it wouldn’t work at all. The actress has an uncanny ability to turn moments that could be exploitative (at worst, and cheap at best) into powerful gestures. When Broughton dunks herself into a bathtub of ice water to clear her mind and heal her wounds, it reads as a statement on the character’s relationship with pain and self-denial. With a lesser performer, it would read as little more than an excuse for some plot-independent nudity.
Not that there isn’t plot-independent nudity — and violence, and bad behavior of all stripes. Atomic Blonde knows full well that the path to a hit espionage thriller does not, in 2017, run through clever spycraft and intricate plot maneuvers; it runs through set pieces and fists, and there are plenty of both here. A desperate, vehicular escape scene is particularly effective.
Director David Leitch is technically making his freshman film here, although he served as an uncredited co-director on the aforementioned John Wick. (His next feature, if you need further indication of what neighborhood Atomic Blonde lives in, will be Deadpool 2.) A career stuntman, Leitch is more than capable of shooting his scenes with flair and clarity — itself a forgotten skill that is blessedly coming back into vogue — but is unable to dictate the pace of his film, which is cumbersome.
No matter, though; you’re not here to think. You’re here to marvel at Theron, both a master of her craft and a true movie star, under impeccable lighting and a recognizable soundtrack. Good enough.
My Rating: 6/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark