Charlize Theron carries on where she left off by taking on another central, female action lead after 2015’s Mad Max Fury Road (where she very much was the lead) with Atomic Blonde, the big screen adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Directed by David Leitch in his first solo outing having previously collaborated with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick. The screenplay is by Kurt Johnstad (300).
Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an American agent who works for the British MI6 secret service. The film is set in 1989, with Broughton sent on an undercover mission to Berlin, posing as a lawyer. After landing, Theron meets up with fellow spy David Percivil (James McAvoy) to try to retrieve a microfilm containing a list of names of double agents who are currently in the process of being smuggled into the West having been involved in the Cold War. The stolen item having been taken following the murder of a fellow agent who just happened to be Lorraine’s lover.
Walking through the streets of Cold War Germany, looking like a bad-ass version of Debbie Harry in killer heels she hardly looks like your average legal practitioner, but it doesn’t really matter. Covert seems to be a dirty word for these spies. They are stylish and brash, much like the film’s portrayal of the city. The ‘80s theme is played heavily throughout with bright neon lights seemingly present in every nighttime shot, complemented by a fantastic range of the eras pop classics including New Order’ “Blue Monday”, as well as other iconic ‘80s anthems such as the Queen/Bowie team up “Under Pressure”, George Michael’s “Father Figure” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.
The city really plays an important role throughout and it’s on-screen presence is felt throughout the film as if it’s another character, much to the credit of Cinematographer Jonathan Sela. The look and feel of the location is central to the general sense of coolness that the film embraces to a full effect alongside some fantastic and visceral fight scenes, as you would expect having been choreographed by the man behind John Wick.
Much like Keanu Reeves’ portrayal of the retired Hitman, Theron effectively conveys a grittiness and realism to the fight scenes, devoid of flashy showmanship and flair. Instead she delivers cold, blunt force trauma, with far more efficient techniques, utilising objects within her reach to kill and disable her attackers and Theron ably demonstrates that she is more than capable of taking on her adversaries on equal terms.
Unfortunately this is where the praise ends. Atomic Blonde, whilst not a bad film, fails to match the aforementioned John Wick. The film desperately wants to be more than just another action film but whereas Wick had a simple premise, (they killed his dog, now he’s going to kill them) Atomic Blonde takes itself far more seriously, too seriously in fact. It’s story, whilst still fairly simple, is filled with unnecessary subplots and therefore becomes too hard to follow. Theron makes a worthy attempt at creating a female, modern day Bond but is too detached and insular, lacking the charm and wit of Daniel Craig’s performance as the legendary secret agent.
The film does seem to be slightly at odds with itself. It’s somewhat serious tone and storyline not matching the look and feel with garish graphics announcing locations in the style of a graphic novel’s panels, it then tries to be a serious Cold War spy thriller and the unbalanced tone is a real shame. I got the impression that all the ingredients were there for a real kick-ass action film but somewhere along the line the mix of ingredients was soured by the wrong mix of its individual components.
There’s a chance that a sequel may give more of an explanatory portrayal of the character of Lorraine Broughton and the ingredients are definitely there for a Jason Bourne type of series but I do believe that any subsequent film would be better served sticking to the action, shoot-em-up genre next time around as the way it tries to segue into a straight laced Cold War thriller simply gives us a film that lacks a firm direction and has something of a mixed identity.
Video – The Blu-Ray’s picture quality is solid throughout. Shot on digital cameras, the 2.39:1 frame mixes blue tinged Berlin environments with occasional bursts of neon lights and graffiti covered walls. Black levels are well handled and this is a strong, well detailed transfer overall.
Audio – The audio comes in the form of DTS: X Master Audio and is just he right mix of spacious and aggressive. Music comes to the fore when required and gunfire has the requisite pop and zing with some truly well balanced and tight bass. On the whole this is a near reference quality audio track.
Extras – There are some obligatory EPK style featurettes that are merely one-watch affairs, 6 deleted scenes and an informative audio commentary from director Leitch and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir which is well worth a listen and form the meat of the extras package.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 6/10
Atomic Blonde is available on DVD/Blu-ray and digital download in the US now and is available December 4th in the U.K.