Atomic Blonde (15)
Running time 1hr 55min
IF Quentin Tarantino were to cash in on the recent vogue for John le Carré adaptations, the result would probably look a lot like Atomic Blonde. Director David Leitch has clearly been binging on Kill Bill, and his action sequences, shot with an ultraviolent grit reminiscent of his John Wick, pull absolutely no punches. The film is infinitely less satisfying as a narrative work, its plot as saggy as a Shar-Pei dog; star Charlize Theron demonstrates great versatility in a string of breakneck battles, but her dead-eyed secret agent makes for an uncompelling heroine. While the sight of her shanking a Stasi thug or rocking a white trench coat is something to behold, she’s no Uma Thurman, and the whole bloody affair could’ve easily lost a good half-hour.
It’s easy to view Atomic Blonde, a graphic novel adaptation, as a trial-run for Leitch’s upcoming Deadpool sequel; if that is indeed the case, the movie leaves this critic with profoundly mixed feelings. Its soundtrack is one of the most giddily ’80s things ever compiled, boasting Bowie, New Order, Ministry, Nena and George Michael (the Human League somehow missed the cut); this is undoubtedly Berlin on the eve of the Wall’s fall, and there’s a mole at the heart of MI6…
Yes, you guessed it; it’s trying desperately to be an upper-addled Tinker, Tailor… but Leitch takes gratuity for complexity, burdening us with story elements that fit poorly with the depraved simplicity of the (numerous) fights. You may roll your eyes at Theron’s dealings with the clientele of an outrageously glitzy bar (Helmut Kohl’s Germany was, apparently, a place curiously lacking in conventionally unattractive people), but there’s something basely captivating (and gleefully OTT) about the film’s meatier segments, which feature an infinite supply of baddies getting stabbed and strangled in clever ways. If only these two contrasts weren’t mediated by a screenplay so fantastically unsatisfying. While James McAvoy gives a fun, demented performance as a sleazy station chief, the actual character is mangled and confused; this is true, also, of Theron’s part, a sort of stock hitwoman whom the audience will always struggle to empathise with (and whom, we’re aware from the start, is destined to walk out of these brutal struggles alive, robbing Atomic Blonde of any real sense of peril).
This would’ve benefited greatly from a more limited, self-conscious script treatment. At its best, it’s riotous entertainment, but Leitch is keen to force upon us long, boring stretches of dramatic silliness, blunting the impact of Theron’s blows. Stylish, yes, and occasionally very, very exciting, but I’ll take John Wick over this overblown caper any day.