‘Atomic Blonde’ tries too hard to be cool and misses mark on depth and authenticity

 By Michelle Wheeler

July 28, 2017

If I’ve learned anything from watching spies on-screen, it’s that confidence is an invaluable tool, but arrogance leads to blind spots for even the most experienced agents.

Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, struts with a blustering swagger, as if it’s hoping you won’t notice how desperately it’s trying to convince you it deserves to be watched.

In the midst of civil and political unrest in Berlin, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is brought in to track down “The List,” a record of agent identities and other classified information that has gone missing. On the ground, she’s paired with station chief David Percival (McAvoy), but it soon becomes clear he may have his own agenda. Twists and turns abound, none that come as a surprise if you’ve ever seen a spy movie before, until a somewhat inevitable conclusion is reached.

Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton and James McAvoy as David Percival. Courtesy of Focus Features

There are a lot of things wrong with Atomic Blonde. The dialogue is comically stilted (“…and remember Lorraine…trust no one”), and Theron’s performance seems stunted by bad wigs and a poor British accent. Splashy camera work and hyper-stylized editing choices aren’t enough to elevate the film as a whole beyond a fairly average action movie.

BUT. There’s a reason the trailers pack a hefty set of punches. Where the movie succeeds in both tone and execution is in its brutal fight scenes. There’s a clever bit of trick-editing to make one of the most intense fights, set in a stairwell where Lorraine is met with wave after wave of assailants, play as a “oner,” or a long single take. Overall, the fight sequences lack a tightness that could have made them more convincing – a table crashes a few seconds too late, a car window bursts a few frames too early – but they couldn’t be much more entertaining.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Though it can be hard to reconcile Lorraine’s expertise in hand-to-hand combat with her on-going decision to wear impractically spiked heels most days she’s on the job, one cannot argue with her ability to fight like a man.

That’s not to say gender politics are at play in the world Broughton inhabits. It’s noticeable that none of her colleagues seem to notice or judge her for being a woman. The filmmakers are certainly aware of it, however, and seem desperate to remind the audience that, while Lorraine is ruthless in the field, she still likes to wear sexy lingerie. And while it’s certainly possible for a female spy to be both bad-ass and sexy, in the context of this movie that is trying so hard to be cool on every single level – from the soundtrack to the costume design to the on-screen graphics – it plays as yet another missed opportunity for depth and authenticity. Atomic Blonde is all on the surface.

Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton. Courtesy of Focus Features

BUT. Let’s be honest. Depth and authenticity are often in short supply in action movies like Atomic Blonde. Viewers want and expect to see people get knocked out and sh*t get blown up, and this film certainly delivers both. If it overplays its hand at times, maybe we can chalk it up to an eager attempt to fake it ‘til it makes it.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

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