So, uh, spy here often?
Into the realm of James Bond and John Wick comes Atomic Blonde, a spy thriller set in the late ’80s and based on the graphic novel The Coldest City. Universal Pictures tabbed longtime stuntman David Leitch, who worked on the original John Wick, to direct the project and inserted Charlize Theron to headline a distinguished cast.
Set in 1989 Berlin, shortly before Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall, Atomic Blonde opens with the murder of an MI6 agent that was carrying a list of every field agent in the USSR. When the list doesn’t show up in KGB hands, the spy community realizes the killer has taken it for themselves and is looking to ransom the item to the highest bidder.
Into this situation MI6 sends one of its top agents, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), to rendezvous with local contact David Percival (James McAvoy). Her arrival isn’t a surprise to the KGB, however, as it tries try to abduct her. She escapes and meets with Percival, and the two of them set to work on tracking down the list, or, failing that, smuggling Spyglass, the source of the information, out of East Berlin.
Beyond the list there is also the matter of a double agent known as Satchel, whose identity is unknown but is believed to be revealed on the list. As the various agencies try to obtain the list whilst thwarting their rivals, nobody can trust anyone else, setting up a complex web that Lorraine must navigate to accomplish her mission and get out alive.
Let’s start with Theron, an accomplished actress with the physical credentials to look like someone that could actually hold their own with trained men in a fight. She was the perfect choice for this part, acting vulnerable one moment and completely badass the next. It’s such a solid performance we’re having trouble thinking of someone else that could’ve played it half as well.
One of the big differences between the film and the graphic novel is an increase in action, and though previews made Atomic Blonde look like another John Wick film, the reality is much more interesting. The fights, while immaculately choreographed, retain an air of realism and spontaneity. Watching Theron become exhausted as fights drag on made her triumph all the more exciting.
As strong as the action is throughout, the no-cut tracking shot scene deserves singular praise. It’s on par with the best we’ve seen of this technique — such as True Detective Season One and Children of Men — and really draws you in as Lorraine tries to escape KGB agents in a multi-level apartment building. If you don’t get fired up for it, you don’t like action.
It’s easy to get caught up on the physical aspects, but the plot is solid as well. There are twists and turns aplenty, and the cast does a good job in their roles. Some actors appear in familiar turns, such as John Goodman and Toby Jones as intelligence officers, but that doesn’t diminish their work. McAvoy works as an uneasy ally for Theron, and Sofia Boutella (pretty much the only good thing in The Mummy) continues to impress.
Leitch could’ve been more subtle with the soundtrack. Yes, we get it, it’s the ’80s, but it feels like pop-heavy tunes are overdone to the point where they become the focus at the expense of whatever is happening on the screen. We’re sorry, there’s nothing particularly dramatic about ’80s pop no matter how much you remix it.
THE BONUS FEATURES
About 10 minutes of deleted/extended scenes are included, though it’s a pretty uninspiring lot with nothing of substance (action or plot) to be found. Sometimes you watch scenes that were cut and wonder why they didn’t make it. This is not one of those times.
Beyond that you get a pretty standard group of featurettes, expanding on the location, plot and so on. The best of these is the “Anatomy of a Fight Scene,” which chronicles the aforementioned long-take fight. It’s more interesting than most stunt-based extras and worth a watch.
Loaded with action, style and sex appeal, Atomic Blonde is simply a lot of fun to watch and joins the likes of Salt and The Long Kiss Goodnight as great female-led espionage films.