It’s hard coming here to review Atomic Blonde after ripping in to Valerian last week. I said Valerian was a gorgeous movie with well-executed action sequences that didn’t click for me because the script was a genuine chore to think about. Atomic Blonde has a lot of the same problems, and at times looks like someone’s aesthetic Tumblr came to life on the condition that it had to recite a tired spy story to stay alive. I’m not sure why, but it works for Atomic Blonde. Maybe an overdone spy story is just more fun than an underdone science fiction story. Maybe Charlize Theron and James McAvoy are just that much better than Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. It could be as simple as grey and neon and the fall of the Berlin Wall is a better mood than the promise of a fantastic science fiction world if you get beyond the bland corridors.
Atomic Blonde has the kind of story you swear you’ve seen a hundred times but can’t quite place any of them. It’s kind of Skyfall meets The Usual Suspects if you only pulled the worst bits from the latter and the best bits from the former. It’s set in 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a file containing the names of every agent from every country working in Berlin has fallen in to the wrong hands. The list also contains the identity of a notorious double agent. MI6 sends in Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to retrieve the list and rendezvous with David Percival (McAvoy) an agent who has been without supervision so long he has “gone native” which in this context seems to mean that he’s playing a Mad Max villain dialed down to 70%. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, but I never felt like anything made enough sense. The combination of the unreliable narrator and the endless double crosses makes everything one or two degrees too muddled for me. Not that this is a movie that wants to be remembered for its plot; it wants to be remembered for its action.
This is a movie directed by someone that started as a stunt coordinator who then hired a top notch crew of stunt and fight choreographers. The action beats in this movie are completely nuts. There’s a one-take continuous fight scene that travels through an entire building that is spellbinding. Because movies have become so enamored with quick-cut action scenes this becomes instantly anti-cinematic and feels even more real. A rejection of the Bourne model of fight scenes (ironically made by people who did work on fights in those movies) and a statement that this is a movie where fights are longer, more brutal, and have a more lasting effect. The other fights are also superb but they were also universally featured in the trailers, including the climactic fight scene, so it felt like I had seen everything else before I got there. I know that the people who make the movie don’t cut the trailers but the marketing people did this movie a disservice by putting out so much of the good stuff for free.
I don’t tend to like movies that use grey as their primary color, and Atomic Blonde uses an awful lot of grey, but it works here because they use it exclusively to allow pops of other color. Berlin is dreary and sedate in this film but none of the characters are. Everyone has something about them that jumps off the screen be it hair, clothes, some kind of prop. Lorraine gets all three. The locations sometimes defy belief (there were neon pink lights in flop house hotels in 1989 Berlin?) but I like beyond belief if it lends itself to a better looking film. Atomic Blonde is slick without being shiny and that’s worth a lot for a movie that’s supposed to be set in such a pivotal moment. I would roll my eyes at any movie that wanted to end with the backdrop of fireworks, but if the Berlin Wall is falling and the fireworks look like the kind of thing you see from people in cities where fireworks are illegal it kind of makes it okay.
I would absolutely watch Atomic Blonde if I saw it on HBO, I might even buy the graphic novel to see if it makes the plot any easier to understand. I appreciate that I seem like a hypocrite for praising this movie after slagging a movie with similar attributes a week ago, but I don’t care. Cool counts. Atomic Blonde is cool and catchy and sticks with you. It pushes itself above mediocrity through grit, charisma, and gumption.