'Atomic Blonde' detonates into stylish 'John Wick' action... eventually

Spoiler-free review: Despite a chaotic story, “Atomic Blonde” is an uber-cool package of synthpop, fight scenes and no substance in a world of style.

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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  • Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Jennifer Bisset
3 min read
Jonathan Prime
Watch this: James McAvoy spies insane action in 'Atomic Blonde'

"Atomic Blonde" is the cool kid in school. Its neon lights colour a bleak Berlin setting, intensifying the nightclub pinks and blues of director David Leitch's previous hit "John Wick." This time he brings a female version of the action hero in Charlize Theron's Lorraine Broughton, differentiated by stabbing throats with red heels and downing vodka to David Bowie's "Cat People." Preoccupied with style over feminist discourse, "Atomic Blonde" is cool and not much more.

Jonathan Prime

There's a moment when James McAvoy's rogue agent David Percival says women get in the way of progress. That's the only time the film addresses gender. Then it goes back to Charlize Theron kicking cronies in the face. Leitch's long-take fight sequences stitched together seamlessly in "John Wick" are just as impressive in "Atomic Blonde." They're so good you want more, but that's not the entire gamut of the female-led take. Penned by a different screenwriter, "Atomic Blonde" bulges in the plot department in unflattering ways and the film feels long at just under two hours.

The basic gist is complicated from the outset. Lorraine Broughton sits in an interrogation room with the CIA, describing her mission in flashback. She's an MI6 agent sent to Berlin in 1989, the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. James McAvoy's David Percival, a station chief at home in the underground bar scene, meets her in a will-they-or-won't-they decide to kill each other working relationship. Their mission involves a threat to the West's intelligence operation, but mainly it's about the drinking and the backstabbing.

Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

The first half of the film you don't feel like you're really there. It suffers from the constraints of returning to the interrogation room, then jumping back into another moment, but reaching it without the main characters. Leitch gives you the CIA scenes as breathers between fight scenes set to '80s hits like Nena's "99 Luftballoons" and 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," but there's a sense of something missing. Right at the start, a KGB guy says, "Maybe you're not as good at this spy shit as you think you are." Maybe.

Yet when "Atomic Blonde" hits its stride, you know it, because it slaps you hard. It comes when the film harnesses the fighting abilities of Charlize Theron in a brutal single-take sequence that sees her smashed over the head with fists and furniture as she battles through assorted thugs. Ranging over several locations, speeding to a car chase, it's a visceral spectacle and the best part of the film. It's just a pity it takes a while to get there.

Jonathan Prime/Focus Features

Theron and McAvoy are as impressive as you've come to expect. When she's not punching faces, Theron is still, her eyes portraying all the wise and sad history you barely learn of a character said to be the crown jewel of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service. It's that lack of story that ranks Broughton below Theron's force of nature Furiosa from "Mad Max: Fury Road." McAvoy is the eccentric in a fur coat and a cast over one hand. You watch him unhinge with the same gusto he used in horror "Split", playing the dark humour to her sharp comebacks and it's a fun pairing at the core the film.

Side characters flit in and out, including John Goodman as a CIA agent and Sofia Boutella as Delphine, Lorraine's love interest. As good as they are, there's no sense of a bad guy. They're all playing the spy game, peeling back the layers of each other's stories. The pile of dead lackeys is big. Who you root for is a complicated game in itself.

It remains to be seen whether Theron's Lorraine Broughton becomes an iconic female action heroine. Her character could be interchangeable with a man. Yet if you buy into her world of cool clothes, cars, hair and music, with a complicated narrative that's a side note to the action, you won't be disappointed.

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