A good action spy film is a recipe for a good time. It’s why the James Bond series has the legacy it does, there’s a lot to be said for trying to unravel the mystery in between intense shoot-outs, car chases and fist fights. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War era spy movie set around the fall of the Berlin Wall, and amidst the civil unrest we get to see Charlize Theron weave her way between a mix of spy and these action genre tropes. With part of the directorial and stunt team behind John Wick, Atomic Blonde was looking like a potentially exciting female action flick. But does it deliver?
The basic spy story is one you’ve seen plenty of times before. Our protagonist is sent to retrieve some sensitive information, and gets caught in a spiderweb of betrayal and opposite sides all vying for the treasured intel. There’s plenty of twists and turns in the plot, but nothing that will likely surprise long term fans of the genre. The late 80s Cold War Germany setting is used really nicely, both as a framing for the story and as a backdrop – as they bounce across different sides of the wall everything manages to keeps a sense of purpose and identity.
All the cast do a fantastic job here. Charlize Theron is convincing as the stoic badass spy carrying the movie, while James McAvoy looks completely at home as the slightly unhinged and off the wall contact. Sophia Boutella again continues to impress and gets to show that she’s more than just a visual actor with her role here. Even some of the bit players help to bring together the vision of the movie, adding to the personality of the surroundings.
There’s less action here than the trailers might have you believe. But when the fists and bullets are flying is when Atomic Blonde is at its best. The cinematography and choreography is excellent, combining long take scenes that refuse to let up or hide any weak punches, while at the same time sticking close to the combatants and throwing the audience into the heart of the action. Charlize Theron has to be commended, because it’s clear she’s not using a stunt double in a lot of scenes and she more than holds her own on this front. There’s one extended scene in a stairwell that looks incredible and is some of the best Western cinema fight work in quite a while.
Atomic Blonde leans heavily on its 80s inspired soundtrack, and at times it feels like its trying to tap into that Guardians of the Galaxy or Baby Driver-esque use of music to control the pace and feel of a scene. The problem is it never really knows how connected to the world it wants to be. At times it seems to be part of the background of the Atomic Blonde world, while other times it’s clearly just there as part of a movie – often times the two concepts bounce back and forth on the same track so you’re never really sure what the intention is outside of just trying to be ‘cool’. That doesn’t mean the soundtrack doesn’t make for a lot of fun moments, but it doesn’t work as well as it has in other movies. There’s also times when the soundtrack dominates the senses, taking precedence over dialogue and on screen action.
In fact there are moments when it feels like the movie is too much style over substance. Just like how the soundtrack feels pushed into the film at times, there are quite a few moments where a shot is forced to create a cool image without it really making sense within the context of the movie. Like for one action scene where Charlize’s character pulls a turtle neck over her nose and mouth before throwing down – kind of a cool image but it only feels like it’s done to be in the trailer (and in the process hides that it is actually Theron doing the fighting, which is a shame). We’ll also get a character talking straight at the audience and nobody else, but it only ever being done once so it feels out of place. When these stylish moments work – like some unique camera angles and movement – it feels effortlessly fantastic, creating a gorgeous experience. But more often than not it feels forced rather than natural.
It also doesn’t really know when to finish, going through about three or four moments that feel like were designed to be the ‘final moment’ of the film, which ends up making the end of the movie drag. It is there partially the wrap up all the spider web story arcs, but it ends up feeling messier than it had to be in an attempt to seem smarter than it actually is.
At the end of the day Atomic Blonde is a fun movie that feels a draft or two away from being a great one. The mixture of high quality action with some strong performances from its cast means there’s plenty to like here – but when you leave the cinema it ultimately feels like the ‘stylish’ nature of the movie is all that is really had to hang its hat on. There are better spy movies out there, and while the action is great there’s not enough for it to be good on those merits alone. It’s a fun enough bad ass chick movie, but it could have been far better with a bit more focus.