The elevator pitch for Atomic Blonde, the second violent ballet from John Wick director David Leitch, was clearly, “John Wick, but starring a gorgeous actress, and no dead dogs.” It’s a good idea, as the Keanu Reeves vehicle was almost perfect in its simplicity: A retired assassin mourning his recently deceased wife is attacked by thugs who take the only thing he has left to remind him of her — an adorable little puppy. With nothing in his heart but vengeance and sadness, Wick embarks on a furious mission to kill the man who murdered his dog, and also dismantle an entire organized-crime operation in the process, because it’s getting in the way of his killing spree. That’s it. That is the whole of John Wick.
Atomic Blonde could have kept things similarly streamlined and been better for it, but instead, it gives us John Wick plus vengeance plus espionage plus multiple plot strands and even the fall of the Berlin Wall to contend with. And where the Wick movies have a lot of characters that are introduced mostly to add flavor, everyone in Blonde seems to have a stake in the outcome, making for a complex web of motivations and personalities. Understandably, this all makes the ending of the movie more than a little confusing. So let’s break down that big finish, just to make sure we’re all on the same page about the end of the Cold War, as well as the end of Atomic Blonde.
The basic story: Theron plays MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who’s dispatched to Berlin in the late fall of 1989 to retrieve information vital to the safety of Western intelligence officers. Another MI6 agent, James Gascoigne, had been in possession of a list containing the identities of every espionage officer in the city on both sides of the Cold War conflict. Gascoigne was chased down and killed by a Russian agent named Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson), who took the list, and now MI6 wants it back. The Brits are extra-incentivized, because the list will tell them the identity of Satchel, an MI6 mole who has been working with the Russians. But as Broughton finds out as soon as she touches down, she’ll be wading through a sea of KGB, French intelligence, Stasi operatives, and even rogue members of her own organization in order to return the list to British custody.
It’s a Snatch-esque plot where everyone is gaming each other (and chasing down a list of names instead of a giant diamond); thus, we are treated to a steady stream of endurance-testing fight scenes, ironic music queues, racks of fabulous outfits, a few very sexy encounters between Theron and Sofia Boutella (playing Delphine Lasalle, the rookie French agent who’s not as smooth as she thinks she is), and a lot of dirty crazy from James McAvoy, who plays David Percival, Theron’s contact on the ground in Berlin.
The twists: Since this is a movie about spies lying to each other, every character is meant to be seen as at least semi-suspicious — even Broughton, which tees up both of Atomic’s big reveals. The first: Percival is not in fact a protector of Western ideals and a sworn enemy of the communists, but has become a self-serving libertine who has no further intention of working for his native government and is, in fact, trying to get Broughton killed so she doesn’t harsh the vibe he’s got going in Germany. As Percival tells the audience in his final monologue, he’s learned only one thing during his years in the divided city: “I fucking love Berlin!”
But, surprise! The second reveal: Broughton is the lyingest liar of them all, working not only as a fake double agent for the KGB, but as a CIA plant within MI6. (One thing is for sure: The Brits are always the last to know in Atomic Blonde.) So how does this explain all of the other crazy shit that goes down before said reveals? Let’s put some of the characters’ previous actions into focus.
Why did Percival kill Delphine? Percival had to take out Delphine because she knew too much about his back-alley dealings with the Soviets. Since Percival went rogue during his time in the city, and switched his allegiance from serving the crown to serving himself, his new prime directive is to “keep the balance” between warring interests in the city and preserve the semi-lawless status quo that he’s come to benefit from. Delphine had photo evidence of his treason, so she had to go.
What about Spyglass, though? In the movie’s final act, Percival sabotages Broughton’s mission to smuggle Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) — the Stasi agent who’s ready to flip for the West — into MI6 custody by putting them directly in the crosshairs of the Soviets. The Russians clearly want Spyglass dead because he’s a traitor, while Percival needs him gone because he has memorized the entire contents of the secret agents list. Remember: Percival already has the list in his possession at this point, having killed Bakhtin earlier on and taken it from him. And since Percival can’t have another copy of it floating around, Spyglass needs to die, too. That Percival shoots Spyglass himself proves he never intended to let the list fall into British hands, because if he alone knows who all the spies are in Berlin, he can either sell the information for profit, keep it secret and leverage people to his advantage, or just pick off spies as it suits him to maintain the aforementioned balance.
Why is he after Broughton? Percival knows that she’s the infamous mole, Satchel. The British think Satchel is a Soviet double agent working against them, and the Soviets think they have an elite spy feeding them intel about Western intelligence operations, but she’s actually playing them all on behalf of the good old U.S. of A., feeding fake information to the Russians while getting real data about their network and relaying it to American intelligence. She’s in Berlin to retrieve the list for the home team, and also to frame Percival as Satchel to free herself from suspicion. But as long as she’s after that list and sniffing around Berlin, she’s a threat Percival needs to dispose of.
So she was never really British? No, and in a further demonstration of British incompetence in this movie, no one should have ever bought that accent she was selling — least of all other spies. The final thing we see is Broughton boarding a plane bound for CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, with a leading intelligence operative, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), and at last handing over the list to him. He tells her it’s time to go home, and she says that sounds like a great idea. The American spy is getting her real life back, and leaving Berlin and the MI6 behind.
Really quick: Why is she doing that whispering, smoky voice? No one knows, but it seems like her thing now.
What you’re saying is, this is actually very different from John Wick? Yes, very. They probably should have called this one Tinker Tailor Soldier Atomic Blonde Spy so people knew what they were in for. Now that the origin story is out of the way, though, maybe Atomic 2 can just stick with revenge killing. But please, remember to spare the puppies.