Kick That Story’s Ass Charlize, or, Atomic Blonde

Turtleneck attack!

Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch’s Cold War spy flick based on Antony Johnson and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, blends the tried and true cinematic espionage of a Bond film with the contemporary sensibilities of 007’s latest action hero progeny. If Casino Royale was Bond meets Bourne, Atomic Blonde is James meets John.


Of Baba Yaga fame.

It’s not exactly a coincidence, given Leitch had a part in directing the original John Wick, but the blend of Wick action and Bond tradecraft never quite comes together, the latter bogging down the former.

Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton, the titular Atomic Blonde. Against a backdrop of the waning days of the Cold War Broughton is tasked with going to Berlin to retrieve a list of undercover operatives before Russia can get ahold of it. It needn’t be more complicated than that, but to its own detriment Atomic Blonde wades deep into narrative twists and turns. There is a great film in Atomic Blonde, be it a more straightforward take on the material or a far denser take that delves into the culture built around the Berlin Wall and the denizens of that culture who have built a life for themselves out of the dizzying tensions and labyrinths of espionage and are force to reckon with the possibility of the Cold War ending. But Atomic Blonde isn’t that simple or that complex.

Theron engages is a series of thrilling, well-choreographed, in-frame fight sequences executed with the precision and minimal edits of a John Wick film, but the synthesizer-drenched transitions from one sequence to the next don’t adhere to the same sort of lethal efficiency. Theron, who far exceeds the confines of the film she’s in, is an utter badass, but fight as she might bits of a middling complex narrative cling to her. You can feel them falling away as she beats the shit out of Russians, just to glob on all over again when the action stops and unwieldy story resumes.

Atomic Blonde could be said to be the opposite of Dunkirk in terms of storytelling. Where Christopher Nolan’s latest utterly deprives the audience of exposition and narrative flourish in hopes of further immersion, Atomic Blonde outright insists on exposition, nailing the script to the ground with narrative and making a tent out of what could have been a kite.

Charlize Theron kicks so much ass that she is able to repeatedly, though always temporarily, escape the overbearing script through brute force. When she’s let loose, minutes away from exposition on either side of the film’s running time, she is astounding, carrying herself with a physicality that intimidates and lends gravitas to her fights. She is so good, in fact, that despite any reservations I have about Atomic Blonde, I can’t help but hope for a sequel because damnit, Charlize Theron is an absolute badass and I want to watch her beat the crap out of more chumps.

For whatever facets of John Wick or James Bond Atomic Blonde takes inspiration from it never fells like a knock-off of another franchise, but as a whole it doesn’t live up to its own potential either.


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