They say that sharks have to keep moving in order to survive, and movies are quite similar. Movies have to engage their audience on a moment to moment basis, constantly traveling forward through time. So if an audience is going to want to move forward with the movie – as opposed to say, turning it off or leaving the theater – they’re going to want what they came for. A comedy had better have laughs and, more to the point, an action movie had better have action.
Atomic Blonde has so much action that even the lights seem to be fighting each other. David Leitch’s follow-up to the exhilarating John Wick seems to suggest that the director never met a scene he didn’t think could be improved by firing blue neon from one side of the frame and red neon from the other, making the edges look rather pretty and everything in the middle look like a bruise. It’s an aggressively stylish presentation that seems designed to keep every single moment in Atomic Blonde dynamic and engaging. And it makes sense that Leitch thought this approach was necessary. After all, the script doesn’t give him enough to work with.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British secret agent on a mission to Berlin in 1989, just days before the collapse of the wall. An enemy agent has stolen a list of every MI-6 operative along with their clandestine resumés, which is information that could obviously be disastrous. So she teams up with a local, seemingly unstable agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) to get it back. But there’s one more wrinkle: the list will expose a double agent named “Satchel,” a person with everything to lose, who could be practically any character in the movie, and who would do just about anything to get it back.
Who is Satchel? The filmmakers would obviously like us to wonder, but it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm about this mystery because a more important question is never addressed: Who is Lorraine? Charlize Theron is a brilliant performer and she’s spectacular in a fight scene but the script for Atomic Blonde gives us no reason to get invested in her story. Lorraine and all of the other characters have to be impenetrably inscrutable in order to keep the intrigue alive, but the irony of course is that this is the exact opposite of intriguing. The story never seems personal, and any supporting characters who do have an emotional investment in the plot are kept off-camera for the majority of the film.
So mostly what we have here is a series of exceptionally executed action sequences, connected by pretty lighting, a hip soundtrack and a great actor who is given only one note to play: icy detachment. If you’ve ever spent two hours in a confined space with somebody who refuses to talk to you, you’ll understand how old this gets and how quickly. Compare this to John Wick, where the steely protagonist would probably at least show you pictures of his cute dog, and you’ll probably see why John Wick comes across as the superior film. You actually want to engage with John Wick. It doesn’t take long to realize that the best you’re going to get out of Atomic Blonde is an attractive distraction.
But it’s attractive and it’s somewhat distracting. Again, the action is stellar, and David Leitch decides to go absolutely nuts by the end with a brutal and complex climax that, if nothing else, will make for a fascinating behind-the-scenes feature on the Blu-ray. Charlize Theron and James McAvoy do the best they can with their underwritten characters, and they’re talented enough that those efforts count for something. And yes, it looks real pretty. But the film never quite detonates. The Cold War rarely felt this cold.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.