Have you ever seen a movie that you were so completely and utterly convinced that you were going to fall in love with that when you don’t, it takes your brain days to process what has happened enough to assemble a clear reaction to it?
That’s my experience of Atomic Blonde.
When the trailer debuted, featuring a stylistic orgy of hand to hand combat and gun play set to a mashup/montage of Blue Monday’s “Blue Monday,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” I was onboard square away. In a summer filled with comic book movies, this somehow shot to the top of this lifelong comic book fan’s most anticipated list. I was there at the earliest possible moment I could.
And the trailer was not a lie, really. It isn’t like it misrepresents the plot or anything. And yet…
Before we get too far in, a quick plot recap. Taking place in eight days in November of 1989 in an East and West Germany on the edge of pulling the wall that has bisected their country for almost exactly 28 years. As the Cold War norm is beginning to crumble, the United States, Britain, France, the USSR, and various local operators in both Germanys are very aware the whole game is about to change. Drop into this coming upheaval of the status quo a watch filled with the secrets of every operative on both sides of the Communist/Capitalist divide and no one trusts anyone else to do “the right thing” with it.
Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is dispatched by the British government with some support from the US to meet up with “gone native” operative David Percival (James McAvoy) to clean up the mess that her lover James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) created by losing the watch in the first place. Key CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), Brougton’s handler Eric Gray (Toby Jones), French espionage operative Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and local Russian agent turned crime lord Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) also all figure prominently.
As is befitting a spy film, things get twisted in a hurry and who you can trust becomes increasingly unclear.
McAvoy equates himself in this ever shifting landscape. Bearing a knight’s name but the presentation of a trust fund kid gone feral, he seems to revel in the near anarchy that is late 80’s Germany. Living in an a seemingly abandoned warehouse that is stockpiled with art, literature, pornography, and spy craft in such equal measure it seems to suggest they are all of equal importance, he seems to be preparing to restart some kind of odd version of society after the apocalypse sweeps away the old world. He is utterly convinced of his own excellence and, for most of the film, does seem to be the only one who truly has the game wired.
Theron, in comparison, only comes alive when she is letting her physical prowess run wild or when she shows the vulnerability of someone who, perhaps, has finally lost too much. Otherwise, she exhibits a brittle dry humor but little else. She might be armored up enough to survive the life of a spy, but she is hiding the charisma that would make her a truly dangerous operative under a forced indifference that eventually makes the viewer indifferent to her as well.
Amongst the supporters, Boutella stands out as the French agent who seems, perhaps, just a little too naïve and kind to have been dropped into one of the most volatile “safe” places in the Cold War. It strains credibility that this job would fall to her, but her humanity makes her an undeniable presence on the screen.
But, often, in a movie like this, the style and action is what does or does not secure the film’s reputation. On that front, it is a mixed bag. Compared by most to John Wick due to one half of the directing duo of that film being behind the camera here and the glimpse of the action in the trailer, it only gets part of the way to that movie’s immersive experience. The world building of Wick (and Wick 2) so efficiently and completely establishes an alternate universe of hitmen that whatever unfolds in that world never feels questionable. Blonde, on the other hand, begs for the same kind of parallel world but never truly gets there. The seams show and the unreality of things cannot stand up to being exposed to the light.
On the other hand, the action set pieces are every bit as stylistic and bruising as promised. As mentioned above, Theron handles the physicality with aplomb, making us believe both her skills and the toll it takes on her body and her co-stars similarly bring a believable weight to some truly incredible stunts.
However, the spaces between gun and fist fights and chases galore suffers. Some movies—Wick—account for this by simply never letting the action abate. Others breathe style into every frame, quiet or loud—think the first Matrix. Blonde, however, seems to forget about style when its cameras train on dialogue scenes or subtle acts of spy craft. Besides for some nice lighting tricks—Theron’s very modern for the time hotel room is a glass box framed by nearly always blazing neon fluorescent lights—the film seemingly loses interest in establishing style for the spaces between making the quiet moments—of which there are more than you might expect—feel very dreary indeed by comparison.
Finally, a few words on the soundtrack. If you have an affection for the 80’s songs in the trailer and their musical cousins, you will quite enjoy it. I did, for sure. However, I confess, it did deliver the impact I was hoping for. Coming off Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and, more so, Baby Driver and Blonde’s trailer, I was expecting not just be music I might like but music that might be chosen with precision—Guardians—and perhaps even be edited on the action—the trailer, Baby. Alas, it proves to just be hummable wallpaper.
When all is said and done, there is much to like in Atomic Blonde’s nearly two hour (and it feels longer) running time, but that makes the other pieces that much more noticeable and disappointing. And its three feints towards ending—think Return of the King—only serve to make those highlight those contrasts all the more as the credits roll and the lights come up.