Wonder Woman created a considerable buzz, becoming the highest grossing female-directed movie of all time. Because of this, I started thinking about women’s role in film, and how I’m partial to movies that feature ass-kicking women. I enjoy movies like Kill Bill and Atomic Blonde because they are a novelty: it’s somewhat atypical for a woman to carry an action film, and perhaps that should change. In Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) brawls her way through the streets of Berlin, leaving bloodied foes in her wake and proving every bit as capable as her male counterparts. Although Theron was impressive in the role (she did her own stunts), Atomic Blonde had more style than substance, and it was not as original as some critics would have you believe.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 officer tasked with traveling to Berlin to investigate the death of another spy. The comrade in question was in possession of a covert list of spies and double agents. Set in 1989, the movie takes place in the waning days of The Cold War. Upon arriving in Berlin, Lorraine is met by David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), her handler and point person. He’s a wild card, his unconventional appearance fitting perfectly with the rebellious, revolutionary spirit of the city. Lorraine is stoic, dispassionate and efficient, traits that serve her well in her profession. She brings those considerable skills to bear in pursuit of an asset called Spyglass (Eddie Marsan, Ray Donovan), an informant privy to the list’s contents.
As the movie progresses, Lorraine dispatches adversaries with an impressive ferocity. She takes her fair share of lumps too, one stairwell scene is particularly brutal. I tip my hat to Theron, who immersed herself in the role by training relentlessly in preparation and performing her own stunts. The film’s strengths were its action, cinematography, and score. Visually, it was washed out and monochromatic, with intermittent pops of neon color that gave it a sleek, oddly modern look. When Lorraine seduces French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), the screen is awash in hot pink. When she soaks in an ice bath after a day of beatings, the screen is nearly devoid of color, save for cool blue undertones. I appreciated these visual elements, along with the pulsating New Age soundtrack.
I’ve praised Theron for her commitment to the role, but even so, her performance felt muted. Perhaps that was intentional; maybe she was just supposed to be a detached spy, but I thought her character felt walled off emotionally. Theron is talented and I know she’s got the chops, so I attribute this to some failing of the script, which was unoriginal and confusing. Moreover, the whole ‘missing list of covert operatives’ storyline was hackneyed and silly. The cast is esteemed, including John Goodman (Kong: Skull Island), the aforementioned McAvoy, and Toby Jones (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but they can’t save the source material.
In sum, if you’re big on plot and details, you may not care for Atomic Blonde. However, if you’re game for some entertaining summer fare, I think you’ll be pleased. Theron has enough star power to reel you in, and the film was sexy and arresting, visually. It just wasn’t smart. Some critics are treating Atomic Blonde as the first movie to portray a “female James Bond,” and that’s simply inaccurate. Films like the relatively recent Salt, Point of No Return, and its iconic predecessor La Femme Nikita all come to mind as other examples, with two of these three being vastly superior to Theron’s latest offering.