After murdering a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike (Sam Hargrave) and lingering on Charlize Theron’s naked body for just a little too long, Atomic Blonde gets its plot started—of all places—in an interrogation room. Toby Jones and John Goodman play barely-written MI6 and CIA operatives who question a badly beaten up Lorraine Broughton (Lorraine), a top MI6 agent. Broughton then proceeds to act as narrator for the movie that follows.
Adapted by Kurt Johnstad (300 & 300: Age of an Empire) from a Cold War fanfic graphic novel, the film is interspersed throughout with these interrogation scenes, signalling one of two possibilities: they could simply be a narrative tool that removes all tension from the story because we know the protagonist will make it out alive. Or Charlize Theron is playing an unreliable narrator. I won’t say which one is true. Either way, it becomes clear 30-minutes into the movie that nothing actually matters.
This is a huge disappointment because Charlize Theron is the action star we so desperately need. After stealing the show in recent films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Fate of the Furious, Atomic Blonde feels like her obvious next step. Directed by David Leitch (stuntman and uncredited co-director of John Wick), this movie should have been a nonstop thrill ride. Instead, the audience is forced to parse through some asinine exposition and awkward pacing in order to reach the moments they paid to see.
The Berlin Wall is about to crumble, but a list of Cold War double agents has appeared, and it is on the precipice of landing in the wrong hands! If it does, the Cold War will go on for several more decades!!! Luckily, Broughton is on the case, and she is murdering everyone in sight. The violence in Atomic Blonde takes a more hands-on, brutal form than the detached style of violent gunplay in John Wick. However, the execution of said violence is sloppy. And for long periods of the film, the violence comes out of nowhere in between tedious stretches of mediocre dialogue. I was simultaneously hoping for more and grossed out by the pointlessness of it all. There is one standout action scene, taking place in a stairwell over the course of a single shot, that hints at the movie that could have been. For the most part though, the action sequences leave something to be desired.
“Don’t think” appears to be the film’s major philosophy, especially as it reaches its 27th ultra-edgy convoluted plot twist. Who really has the list? Who is the real bad guy? Who cares? The idea of “turning your brain” off works best when the story is very simple, or so complicated that the movie just skims right past it. The idea is that if you just ignore the flaws of the vehicle, you will enjoy the ride. However, Atomic Blonde spends so much time explaining and re-explaining the story that the action, what is supposed to be the main sell, becomes an afterthought. While there are some excellent musical selections, exciting costume design and a top-notch cast, I realized that I just didn’t care about what was going on. I tried to shut my brain off, but I just got bored.
Atomic Blonde is billed as a feminist action piece, but a sexualized white woman action star isn’t quite revolutionary. In fact, not only are the filmmakers exclusively dudes, but there are only two female characters in the film who have names. These characters have a queer affair, which is filmed with gratuitous nudity (the director of photography is also male), before one of the two women gets killed off in an extremely fetishized way. This movie could and should be so much better. But looks can be deceiving, and Atomic Blonde is a pretty big mess.