Atomic Blonde gives you an idea of what Bourne or some of the recent Bond movies might’ve looked like if they’d had style and a sense of humor. Narratively, Atomic Blonde is similar, an espionage thriller defined by a screenwriter working way too hard to create at least three plot twists too many. But whereas Bourne and Bond are fundamentally dull, Atomic Blonde exudes watchability (with a refreshing minimum of characters shrieking into phones or spewing jargon as the camera follows them down corridors). Which proves that when we’re talking sexy spy thrillers, style is most of the battle.
Based on the 2012 Antony Johnson graphic novel The Coldest City, and directed by David Leitch (co-director of John Wick and director of the upcoming Deadpool 2) Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 Berlin, when the wall is about to fall, but the tit for tat battle between Cold War spy agencies is still in full swing. A setting that also allows for lots of ultra cool graffiti backdrops and dingy new-wave basement raves. Charlize Theron plays MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who narrates the tale from a smoky interrogation room in London where she’s being grilled by a British intelligence officer played by Toby Jones and a CIA man played by John Goodman (we call him “the human hot sauce,” because he makes everything better).
She’d been sent to East Berlin in order to track down a secret list of all the clandestine officers that… you know what? I’m not going to try to explain this plot. It doesn’t really matter. Just know that it’s stylish as hell, opening with an underwater shot of naked Charlize Theron in a bathtub full of ice cubes, trying to nurse her bruised body, slithering out to light a cigarette and pour herself a glass of glacial Stoli over ice. The production design in Atomic Blonde is seal skin slick, always pushing right up against the line of too slick, always one beat away from becoming a full-on perfume commercial or nouveau Robert Palmer video.
Once the fighting starts, it gets even better. The notion that a sense of humor was the key ingredient in action choreography should’ve been settled once and for all post-Jackie Chan, but it’s a discovery that the world seems to have made and then forgotten, setting us on a course toward a long dark age (a dark and gritty age, really). And I don’t mean a sense of humor as in the protagonist cracking dick jokes or slipping on a banana peel during fist fights, I just mean basic visual inventiveness. A general understanding that a fight, like a joke, should have a beginning, middle, and end; set up and punchline; conflict, complication, resolution. Sure, Atomic Blonde requires you accept the premise that willowy (though statuesque) Charlize Theron can beat up three or four 200-pound army men at once, that is the premise, and it only gets easier to go along with once she starts incorporating stairs, hoses, hot plates, toilet seat covers, etc into her arsenal of improvised weaponry.
Another reason Atomic Blonde works so much better than virtually every other action movie I’ve seen in the last 15 years (with the possible exception of the Iko Uwais stuff) is that it doesn’t ignore the costs of all that chop socky. Maybe it took a director who was a stunt man himself to understand that people who just spent the last 10 minutes kicking the shit out of each other should look like people who just spent the last 10 minutes kicking the shit out of each other. Have you ever seen what professional fighters look like after 10 straight minutes of fighting? Hell, two straight minutes of fighting?
Shaky cam nonsense aside, it’s hard to be invested in fight scenes in Bourne, Bond, Captain America, et. al (many of which David Leitch did stunts on) when the most damage that would happen is that the hero might show up with a couple of fashionable cuts above the eyebrow arch the next day. No one ever gets winded. In Atomic Blonde, Charlize and her adversaries finish fights wheezing, staggering around covered in blood, spit, and snot — like Patricia Arquette and James Gandolfini’s bathroom fight in True Romance. Now that was a goddamned fight scene. If Atomic Blonde shares structural elements with Bourne, its violence is more like True Romance, with the Cold War period sexiness of Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the specific neon new wave grooviness of Drive. To paraphrase Donny from The Big Lebowski, “those are good influences, Walter.”
Lorraine Broughton eventually gets mixed up with a series of other underworld and espionage players, from James McAvoy as an MI6 agent who’s gone native (fun!) to Eddie Marsan as a Stasi defector with a photographic memory to Sofia Boutella as a French honeypot (with whom Theron shares a memorable love scene). I realize that it’s a spy movie, but there are way too many double crosses and reversals, which feel like vestigial genre elements that Atomic Blonde (adapted by Kurt Johnstad) is otherwise too good for. Work smarter, not harder, screenwriters! We’re here for the blood spatter, not the third act reveals.
Aside from the twists, Atomic Blonde otherwise feels like a sign that we may have finally escaped the post-24 era of spy thrillers, when we combined sanitized but relentless PG-13 violence with breathless jingoism. Blond thankfully spares us the national security implications. If James Bond was one of Blonde‘s influences, and surely it was, it understands that early Bond movies weren’t about espionage and counter-intelligence, not really. They were essentially stylish softcore porn. And when done well, that’s pretty fun.