David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” is a sleek and stylish action/thriller set at the tail end of the Cold War. It’s easy to get lost in the airbrushed 80’s aesthetic, Jonathan Sela’s lush, meticulously crafted visuals and the all around unruffled attitude the film (and its characters) exhibits in every frame. There is a plot but it’s extremely rote and superficially complex; at about the halfway point I simply stopped caring about where things were going. Still, the picture oozes style. It’s more about secret agents looking cool and smoking cigarettes and beating each other up than anything else. Furthermore, the film is bolstered by a magnetic Charlize Theron who plays the titular badass blonde, a character that combines the classiness of James Bond with the brutality of John Wick.
Visually, “Atomic Blonde” is marked by two distinct styles: during the day the color palette is muted, dominated by grey and white. But at night, Berlin transformers into a neon lit wonderland--multicolored lights are everywhere, at the various bars and clubs. A cramped, unassuming watch shop where cold war spies sometimes do business is lit in curious green. The hotel room where MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) stays is aggressively lit by blue, pink and red. In fact, the neon lighting appears to be installed underneath and behind her bedframe. The lighting design gives the film a seedy yet romantic glow.
The various spies and authority figures that populate “Atomic Blonde” are always cool and mysterious, trying to act nonchalant (and not doing a very good job at it most of the time. They really do a poor job of blending in with their environment) as they conduct their shady spy business in the streets of paranoia drenched Berlin and fight one other. Relationships are surface level and loyalties are for sale--the characters are driven by their own agendas. They walk around with a detached, self-assured swagger. Leitch turns Berlin into a colorful, hypnotic labyrinth, teeming with Cold War dread.
The coolest and most mysterious of the characters is Lorraine. She wears nothing but snazzy outfits— a new elegant and sexy dress every night. During the daytime she wears a pristine white pea coat, red heels and large shades, an outfit that compliments her straightened blonde hair. Lorraine’s movements are graceful and calculating. She knows instinctively when she’s in trouble, or being set up (which happens a lot in this movie) and quickly switches into action mode. Her hands turn into lethal melee weapons and she takes care of business, looking good while doing it. Even when Lorraine simply sits in her neon lit hotel room smoking a cigarette she emits an effortless glamour, like a Femme Fatal in an old school film noir. Theron is mesmerizing. Understated and ruthless, cold and detached but also very aware of the alluring effect she has on the men around her, which she uses to her advantage.
The espionage narrative is expectedly twisty and underwhelming. It’s simultaneously convoluted and not as clever as it thinks it is. Most of the major plot twists and character revelations are obvious long before they happen. The screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (based on a graphic novel series by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart) relies on a lot of well-worn spy movie clichés. Lorraine and the rest of the characters are after a top-secret list containing the true identities of thousands of agents from the around the world, an overused MacGuffin. Overall, the film contains a lot of bland, familiar plotting that adds up to very little.
Ultimately, “Atomic Blonde” is too derivative and muddled to be a great film but it’s still entertaining thanks to its enthralling style and Theron’s onscreen radiance. There’s also a much buzzed about five minute long single take action sequence that’s a real doozy. It’s captured with a blunt handheld clarity. The melee combat is brutal and visceral (you can feel every punch, kick and shove) and clumsy and sluggish at the same time. Lorraine and the various henchmen take turns slugging each other and then go to catch their breath. It plays out in a more realistic manner, rather than being choreographed like a dance. The sequence is exhilarating and it gives Lorraine’s character a layer of vulnerability. It might be worth the price of admission alone.