Two-thirds of the way through Atomic Blonde, British intelligence agent/assassin Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) fights a procession of killers in an abandoned Berlin office building in one single, seven-and-a-half minute shot that appears to be done with just one camera that never cuts away from the action. The sequence is astonishing — even if some digital trickery was almost certainly used — and one gets the impression that the rest of the film was built to lead up to that one showstopping explosion of brutal violence, masterful fight choreography and incredibly agile camerawork.
It’s the scene that everyone will leave the theater talking about, and they’ll probably also discuss how tough Theron is and what a great foil James McAvoy turns out to be as a somewhat dissolute MI6 agent who is ostensibly Lorraine’s contact in Berlin but has all but given himself over to the decadent pleasure of the city on the eve of the fall of the Wall. What they won’t talk about is the plot: based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde’s story — aside from its female protagonist and her choice of lover — is overly convoluted and familiar. The main hook — there’s a guy who has a list of every CIA and MI6 operative working undercover in the field — is lifted straight from the first Mission: Impossible movie, much of the narrative lacks clarity and the bad guys are standard issue Eastern Eurotrash heavies.
The story is told in flashbacks as Lorraine is being interrogated by her British superior (Toby Jones, of course, who probably has a lock on these kinds of roles for life) and a grouchy, world-weary CIA rep (John Goodman). Lorraine is sent to a wintry, gray Berlin (aside from neon-lit club and alley scenes, this is not an especially appealing picture visually) to look into the assassination of a fellow MI6 agent. The trail leads her to David Percival (McAvoy), who wants to get the man with the list, codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), out of the city. But Lorraine has barely hit town before she is pursued endlessly by those anonymous enemies and also staked out by an inexperienced French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella) with whom she embarks on a torrid little affair.
The motivations of everyone involved are murky at best, and even the romance between Lorraine and Delphine seems random — a plot point reached solely to turn the usual sexual frolic of the spy genre on its head. Aside from the idea of Lorraine as a female James Bond — a concept which clearly captivated the imaginations of both Theron (who is also a producer on the film) and director David Leitch (John Wick, Deadpool 2) — much of Atomic Blonde is paint-by-numbers stuff. And despite her stunning action chops in the role, Theron’s chilly Lorraine doesn’t quite have the casual charm of a 007 or even the fiery persona of her own Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.
McAvoy fares a bit better as a man who truly comes alive in his anarchic surroundings, and there’s something to be said for the fall of the Wall symbolizing both Percival’s embrace of chaos and Lorraine’s own crumbling mental and physical front. The best part of Theron’s performance — even in a strangely underwritten role — is the way she keeps doggedly coming in the best tradition of the genre. You can’t keep a good spy down, even when you submerge her and her car in a river after a white-knuckle chase through the streets in another superb setpiece (a coda to the previous one we told you about).
Leitch directs the hell out of the action sequences. He and Chad Stahelski, his co-director on John Wick (and who did the even more dazzling John Wick 2 on his own), really have this kind of thing down and make it resonate in fresh new ways. It’s just a shame that the story lets down both his nicely stylized work as well as the performances of his two leads and the supporting players. Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is remote and uninvolving, its flatness creeping into the production despite the best efforts of Leitch, Theron and the others. Despite its strengths — Theron, McAvoy, those fight sequences — Atomic Blonde never musters up enough sheer heat to live up to its title.
Atomic Blonde is out in theaters Friday (July 28).
Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!