Atomic Blonde Review [SXSW 2017]

Matt Donato

Reviewed by:
On March 13, 2017
Last modified:March 26, 2017


Atomic Blonde is a new-wave action rehash made better by Charlize Theron's steely spy game and David Leitch's radiating style.

Atomic Blonde Review [SXSW 2017]

Despite director David Leitch’s ties to Keanu Reeves, Atomic Blonde is no Lady John Wick. Cold War locales may radiate similar neon hues (Wick’s Russian bath house), but this espionage thrill-kicker is more about consequence then henchman disposal. Revenge is merely an underlying motivation, as government parties fight to keep a power struggle concrete while the Berlin wall crumbles down. Would a Wick/Blonde crossover be powerful enough to level cities? Undeniably. Let’s first appreciate what we have, though – Charlize Theron giving everyone in Atomic Blonde the fucking business. 

Berlin, 1989. A German city loaded with secret government operatives, as East/West tensions reach their breaking point. Britain, France, America – everyone has agents in Germany, but a rumored list could out every name if it were to be exposed. This is why MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Germany, with a mission of retrieval. Her only contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), but the existence of a double-agent codenamed “Satchel” means there’s no one to trust. Can Broughton flush the list, expose a traitor and stay alive while on enemy turf? Or will the mean streets of Germany introduce a game where no national agency wins.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that Atomic Blonde is based off a 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City (Antony Johnston/Sam Hart). Scenes frame themselves like comic book panels, vibrant in design and statuesque in transition. Action punches with bloody knuckles and breakneck brutality, but moments of silence are saturated by icy blues, flamingo pinks and snow-white brights. Leitch may appear to be evoking John Wick with these visual glows, but it’s all properly in-tune with an 80s trashiness that powers Broughton’s investigation. Music plays a huge part in Atomic Blonde, especially when establishing visual accompaniments to synth-y scene-staging.

Theron plays an international mistress of mystery, ready to dispatch whatever number of adversaries circle around her. Five police officers bash in an apartment door, only to be defeated by a rubber hose (top-notch attacks). Broken bottles or household appliances make for helpful weaponry, most times instead of gunplay or trajectory kills. Leitch distances himself form Wick’s gun-fu artistry, and throws Theron into these hand-to-hand brawls that leave her wounded, but never bested. “Realistic” action shows a human side to the undercover seductress, in that she bleeds and depletes energy just like the rest of us – but nevertheless, she persists. Pain heals, chicks dig scars and glory last forever. All statements that Miss Broughton would agree with (#2 thanks to a screen-melting show of passion with Sofia Boutella’s French agent).

If action is your thing, Atomic Blonde drops a brutal action A-bomb. Watching Theron fight her way down a staircase in one unbroken shot reminds of Oldboy/Daredevil glory, as she defeats enemies with all the strength she can muster. Walls break, furniture is slammed and blood drips as she picks herself up for another tumble down more punishing stairs. Characters refuse to quit across the board, and survival is earned. It’s very anti-Wick, where Reeves takes constant blows but keeps his ability to dip, dive, duck and dodge without lingering pain. Theron not only executes phenomenal fight choreography (fluid motion, physical dominance), but exchanges leave her winded and gasping for air. Choreographed excitement is captured beautifully through a stylized lens, incorporating both visual fluidity and precise song choice that makes for pulpy, euphoric fights.

Looking farther, plot-ties are a bit frayed at the ends. Broughton recaps her Berlin mission for audiences as she’s being interrogated by big wigs (Toby Jones/John Goodman), complete with reaction shots that jump between flashback and conversation. This works when cutting from another deadly tussle directly to Theron’s steely glare (a “yeah, I did that” wink at the audience), but intertwined backstabbing gets a little too heavy-handed. Action explodes off the screen, while corrupted characters weave a dangerous spy game with few rules. “Satchel” keeps getting teased, Percival’s contact “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan) mumbles his own subplot, red herrings do little convincing – Leitch’s latest is very beat-em-up first, development later. For what that’s worth.

Atomic Blonde strikes a deafening blow thanks to enjoyable characters, furious fight-play and Charlize Theron’s brand of screen command. She’s always in control, whether toying with feminine wilds or slugging another glass of Stoli on the rocks. It’s never the female arc where messy emotions complicate everything, weakening an otherwise prototype agent. Lorraine Broughton makes her mark by saying “anything you can do, I can do better,” because she can. Her adventure may be weighed down by unnecessary twists, but character work from McAvoy, Boutella et al. drive this barrier-breaking rumble with calculated ferocity. You’ve seen new-wave action flicks like this, now see how Theron makes them better. Bashing male craniums as George Michael’s “Father Figure” blasts loud and clear. Yeah, well daddy’s gone – it’s mommy’s turn.

Atomic Blonde Review [SXSW 2017]

Atomic Blonde is a new-wave action rehash made better by Charlize Theron's steely spy game and David Leitch's radiating style.