There are two questions to ask of Atomic Blonde, the superspy action thriller starring Charlize Theron: first, how awesome are the action scenes; and second, is the film’s cloak-and-dagger plot any good?
The answer to the first question is easy: the action scenes are so awesome. The film was directed by David Leitch, stunt coordinator and uncredited co-director for John Wick, so that’s no surprise. The second question is a little bit harder to answer. The plot is plenty twisty, full of double- and triple-crosses that’ll keep audiences guessing until the last frames—but I’m not entirely convinced it all holds together. No matter. The story may be borderline nonsensical, but the rest of the film is so cool, so stylish, and so well-choreographed that it hardly makes a difference.
The film is about MI-6 spy Lorraine Broughton, who we first see taking an ice bath after a mission gone wrong leaves her bruised from head to toe. She goes to headquarters for a debrief with a British spyrunner played by Toby Jones, a CIA man played by John Goodman, and a shady figure lurking behind the two-way glass. The tale she tells loops back in time to the beginning of the mission that gave her all those injuries, in which she’s sent to Berlin to retrieve a list of…well, to be honest I couldn’t actually tell you what the list contains, but everyone seems to want it, and that’s the point: it’s a classic McGuffin. In Berlin, Broughton connects with David Percival (James McAvoy), a shifty British agent who’s theoretically Broughton’s ally but seems to have designs of his own. Plus a French agent with whom Broughton has a brief romance, a KGB hatchet-man, double-agents, triple agents, and a Stasi officer desperate to defect to the West before the wall comes down.
That may sound a little difficult to follow, but the film’s dirty secret is that the plot barely matters except as a scaffolding for action scenes and striking visuals. The film is a mishmash of styles, with some locations soaked in neon reds and blues like a scene out of a Michael Mann picture, others washed out in grays and snowy whites befitting the 1989 Berlin location. Every time the film moves from one city to another, or from West to East Berlin, the location is specified in titles sprayed on the screen like graffiti, complete with paint drips. The Cold War time period is punched up with a soundtrack full of 80s hits—“Voices Carry,” “99 Luftballoons,” “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”—many of which are paired ironically with scenes of bruising violence.
When it comes to the violence, I imagine there will be some discussion about whether the film encourages audiences to enjoy the image of its female lead getting beaten up. (Which happens, it must be said, a lot.) There’s something to that criticism—the camera lingers almost pornographically on Theron’s bruises, and one scene in particular involving sheer lingerie and a garrote goes too far into fetish territory. But Broughton gives as good as she gets, and for the most part I have a hard time believing that anyone who watches Theron kick this much ass on screen could feel anything but admiration for how hard she worked, and the bruising poeticism of her physical performance in the film.
The action scenes are, as previously mentioned, as impressive as you’d imagine given Leitch’s pedigree. The action is blessedly free from the kind of quick-cutting and shaky cam that makes too many modern action scenes so hard to comprehend. Leitch knows how to choreograph a fight scene, and so his approach in most of these scenes is to simply pull the camera back and show the actors execute their moves. This approach reaches an apotheosis in an epic long-cut fight, in which Broughton fights a number of Russian agents to the point of exhaustion. The set piece is worth the price of admission in itself.
For some, the incomprehensibility of the plot—which doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, even after everything’s been revealed—will mar the experience of the film. It shouldn’t. Theron and McAvoy are both clearly having a lot of fun in their roles, and who wouldn’t, in a movie this stylish and exciting? A John LeCarre novel it ain’t, but what Atomic Blonde is is pretty cool: a thrilling, bruising, blood-soaked ride with style to spare.