As with so many things, what you get from Atomic Blonde depends on what you look for. You’ll find no satisfaction if you go in hoping for a good yarn, since the movie is a hash of single, double, and triple crosses, and the motives of the ultimate villain turn out to be incomprehensible. (The graphic novel on which the movie is based, The Coldest City, is no help.) Nor — although the film is lousy with spies and set in Berlin on the week that the wall falls — is there much in the way of a spooky-paranoid, John le Carré–like mood. The dialogue is snappy without any particular bite. The actors, with a couple of exceptions, are merely functional. But you don’t go to operas for dancing or ballets for singing, and you don’t see Atomic Blonde for anything but a badass female protagonist crunching bones and pulping faces in gratifyingly long takes or remarkable simulations thereof. The auteur here is literally the stunt man.
A stunt man, rather, who has punched and kicked and kung-fu’ed his way up the food chain. His name is David Leitch, and his directing work in Atomic Blonde amounts to a stunt-person’s manifesto, which is also a rebuke to all those Marvel or DC movies in which the camera is so close that you can’t see whose fist is connecting with whose chin, the action is hacked into tiny bits, and the whole mess is run through a computer with the aim of concealing the seams. (Partly this is because Western stars — being either too clumsy or too expensive to maim or kill, or both — must be protected in the editing room.) There is certainly editing (and computer enhancement) in Atomic Blonde, but Leitch has a fetish for full bodies at full extension, and whenever Charlize Theron’s agent Lorraine Broughton finds herself against the actual or metaphorical wall, the camera pulls back to show the whole playing area, and you can almost hear the director cry, “Ready … set … PUMMEL!”
The upshot is absolutely smashing. “Charlize Theron makes all other action heroes look like wimps!” screams a poster over Times Square, the quote courtesy of Rolling Stone in a blurb contrived to please equal-rights advocates, feminists, and maybe masochistic males. It does ignore the fact that Hong Kong action heroines have been kicking male butt for nearly half a century, that Uma Thurman was no slouch in the Kill Bill films, and that Gina Carano did all her own fighting in Haywire. But the latter film is instructive: Director Steven Soderbergh made a point of letting Carano do her mixed-martial-arts thing in long takes, but Soderbergh tends to ration himself to one big idea per movie and then stick to it like a graduate student bent on proving a thesis — and so Carano’s action scenes (impressive as they were) looked like the day’s rushes before the editor had a chance to punch them up. In Atomic Blonde, the camera doesn’t stand at a respectful distance. It swerves and hurtles and all but throws punches of its own. It’s an audience member and a participant.
Atomic Blonde’s showstopper fight scene will be ogled for decades to come. A faux single take that looks uncannily réal, it opens with a visibly anxious Lorraine positioning her gun as she rides a rickety elevator, knowing that when the doors open she’ll have to begin shooting — and punching, kicking, stabbing, etc. What follows is a series of whiplash moves that make us feel as if we’re in a giant pinball machine with ear-pummeling sound effects being bashed against one abutment after another while falling toward the abyss. Here is the best part of Theron’s performance: She doesn’t look as if her moves have been choreographed down to the smallest twitch. You see in her eyes the mark of a true hero: fear being elbowed aside by sheer determination not to die (or fail). It would have been fun to be in the room with Leitch and his crew when they viewed their finished scene and thought, “How could we have done that any better?” They couldn’t have — but they might have considered not making the rest of the movie so heavy and dull that we’re practically salivating for more people to get royally wasted.
For the sake of completeness, I should note that there is plenty of plot but little in the way of clarity. Entertainment writers desperate for a hook have called Theron’s Broughton “a female Bond.” Yes, she is nominally a British secret agent who wears sleek outfits and beds a beautiful woman (a rival agent), but the original Bond characterization is rooted in class (and colonialist and sexual) privilege, as well as the sense that an entire nation’s super-technology is firmly in place behind a set of firm Establishment values. The world of Atomic Blonde is — at least until its coda — a nihilist’s vision of competing psychopaths, greed heads, and imperialists, and the heroine is mainly (by design) inscrutable. Noble values of a sort reassert themselves in the final moments but don’t do much to dispel the dour vibes. (The cynical ending of the graphic novel fits the material better but is almost equally stupid.)
Leitch and his French cinematographer Jonathan Sela try to achieve a distinctive look: washed-out Cold War exteriors with Theron’s white-blonde hair and shiny, thigh-high black boots supplying the glow. The soundtrack is ’80s Europop like “99 Luftballoons” along with a bit of Bowie and “Der Kommissar.” (A couple of times we hear the opening of Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” but I don’t recall the chorus ever coming.) As a CIA higher-up, John Goodman can be sour without losing his comic timing and James McAvoy can be murderous without losing his springy adorableness. Eddie Marsan has a few dear moments as the repository of the film’s McGuffin. But apart from Theron, the only actor who fully registers is Sofia Boutella as the French operative who fires Lorraine’s loins (and vice versa). Boutella is best known for her exotic aliens and/or killers in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond, and The Mummy, and it’s nice to see that she doesn’t need bizarre makeup or limb-lopping appendages to make you want to watch her. But Atomic Blonde knocks aside that relationship with the same single-mindedness that makes the film, finally, so uninteresting.