Atomic Blonde review

It’s fitting Atomic Blonde got released weeks after all the debate over the first female Dr. Who. With apologies to Salt and La Femme Nikita, Atomic Blonde is the first film to try so hard to be a female James Bond.

Any similarities to 007 and even Usual Suspects are highly intentional. Everything from the poorly developed Bond…er Blonde Babe around for one purpose to the interrogation room recollection of events is an obvious homage to Blonde’s inspirations. But does that make Atomic Blonde a good film?

If we’re judging solely on style points, that’s a definitive yes. This is a film neon-coated and dripping in style with points to spare.

Stripping away Jonathan Sela’s brilliant lighting and beautiful cinematography, this is an average action film that’s hardly as clever as the filmmakers think. It’s a Roger Moore era Bond flick with better hair, more neon and less quips. But at least it’s got Charlize Theron creating another memorable kick-tail action heroine.

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Set in Berlin days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film offers a unique backdrop for these spy games. Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300: Rise of an Empire) adapts Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City.

Theron plays undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton. Her handlers (Toby Jones and James Faulkner) assign her to track down a list filled with information on all known double agents including the identity of a rogue agent.

Along the way, she meets a charismatic agent Percival (James McAvoy) with a brash personality and a photographer Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) eager to fully zoom in on Lorraine.

Theron never quite gets the hang of the British accent and combined with her stiff take on Lorraine, she’s hardly the charismatic action hero. Ironically, Theron delivers a far better coldly detached performance in The Fate of the Furious. It was easy to buy into her calculating character Cipher, but the Best Actress Oscar winning Theron tries too hard here to be icy cool.

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McAvoy steals the show as he’s the only performer who has fun with his character without trying so hard to be a spy. John Goodman has a fun supporting role as a CIA agent brought in to help run through the debriefing.

I’m curious what changes a female screenwriter or director would have made. Maybe the Lorraine/Delphine dynamic would have offered more depth than the standard Bond random hookup. Unlike Johnstad, maybe they wouldn’t try and base the story around a twist that attentive viewers can figure out by the first half hour. And maybe even make us care remotely about Lorraine?

A lot has been made of the staircase fight scene with some critics labeling it one of the best they’d seen. It is laid out pretty well with Director David Leitch using his experience co-directing John Wick to deliver a clean and easily comprehensible battle. But there’s nothing that approaches a Wick level of stylish violence or the creativeness of Netflix’s Daredevil series.

Still, I appreciated the fight scenes for their realistic approach on female vs. male violence. Too often female led action films give the heroine Wonder Woman-like strength as a cheap shortcut.

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Fight coordinator Jon Valera smartly lays out the action in a sensible manner to explain how Lorraine could beat her opponents. There’s a terrific amount of attention to how a fighter can strategically win. From a technical aspect, this is one of the better aspects of the film. Even then, Lorraine takes her share of punishment proving no matter how skilled the fighter some bruises is unavoidable.

I’m a sucker for late 80s music and this soundtrack featuring songs like Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry, A Flock of Seagulls’ I Ran (So Far Away) and David Bowie & Queen’s Under Pressure.

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Clocking in at nearly two hours, Atomic Blonde starts to wear out its welcome. The prolonged final act reveals the obvious twist, but disappointingly answers few of the many questions it creates.

Is there franchise potential here? Theron should at least be able to get a sequel out of this one. If that’s the case, hopefully the sequel will tell a better story and not rely so heavily on the goodwill of having a female kicking, punching and stabbing the bad guys.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Photo Credit: Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

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