Atomic Blonde is the kind of movie whose DVD menu you’d make out to in college.
It’s flashy and exciting, and you can imagine its best moments and visuals providing the perfect backdrop for some other activity. You could look up, every so often, to see the neon sizzle and the heroine kick somebody in the head. And then you’d return to whatever you were otherwise engaged in.
Which is to say that I really liked Atomic Blonde, but I had to overlook a lot of things to come to that conclusion. The story is too convoluted and has at least two too many climaxes (which are distinct from endings; I’m not convinced this movie actually does end, since it’s so intent on pulling the rug out from under the audience over and over again). And director David Leitch is a little too nonchalant about the gigantic pile of corpses his heroine leaves in her wake.
But damned if it doesn’t look cool as hell. And sometimes in life — and in DVD menus you can make out to — all you want is something that looks super awesome, regardless of whether it makes any sense. Atomic Blonde manages that trick in spades.
So with that in mind, here are the five adjectives that best describe the film, already taken out of context and ready to be quoted on its DVD cover.
Leitch (who co-directed 2014’s John Wick) is one of our most promising new action directors. His protagonists tend to be characters who compartmentalize their humanity in order to become merciless death machines. This, to be honest, is one of my least favorite forms of action filmmaking, but something about the way Leitch approaches the subgenre is irresistible.
The director understands that on some level, all action sequences are dance sequences. But rather than pin down the camera and let the actors move in and out of the frame, Leitch moves with the actors, so the dance unfurls around viewers.
In Atomic Blonde, this trademark of his style is most evident in a scene where protagonist Lorraine (the incomparable Charlize Theron) takes out six different men up and down a stairwell, in hopes of protecting a source who’s already been injured. You’ve probably seen at least a couple of action sequences that track a character horizontally — like a side-scrolling level in a video game — but this one is perhaps the most effective I’ve seen at tracking a character moving vertically, without losing the viewer as Lorraine hops between floors, disappears into rooms, and reappears elsewhere. All along, the camera moves with her; edits are cleverly disguised in blurs of movement or pushes through solid objects.
Then, to top it all off, Leitch follows her out into the street, to shoot just a bit of the car chase that follows as part of the same “shot.” Though he’s kinda just showing off by that point, the whole thing is so enthralling that you probably won’t care.
And he brings that level of showmanship to Atomic Blonde’s other action sequences as well, whether they involve Lorraine beating up two men in a moving car or escaping an apartment by leaping off its balcony, while holding a rope tied around an enemy’s neck. This is pretty self-assured stuff, and Leitch always gives the impression of somebody who’s challenging himself, but only a little bit, and wants us to notice the effort, but not too much.
Even when Atomic Blonde’s story becomes pointlessly complicated, to the degree that following it starts to feel like a chore, the look of the movie is pretty darn glorious. It’s heavily influenced by hardboiled film noirs — so there are shadows and dark corners everywhere — but it’s also fond of the bright pink pop of neon, which occasionally illuminates the darkness. Call it neon-noir.
At times, the film looks like one of those computer games where the backgrounds are incredibly beautiful and detailed and the characters moving through them feel all the more like ciphers for the effort that went into on everything else. But the neon! The shadows! It’s just all so cool.
Leitch and Atomic Blonde director of photography Jonathan Sela utilize bright pops of color to full effect throughout the film. It’s set in a needlessly cruel world, taking place during the fall of East Germany in 1989, as people stab each other in the back and a whole nation crumbles. But all of the fluorescent tubing only serves to underline the movie’s greatest provenance: good, bloody pulp.
I’ve made it this far without really discussing Atomic Blonde’s story because, well, the story is mostly pointless busywork. It’s based on The Coldest City, a comic by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad has heightened two key elements from the detective fiction that so obviously influenced the comic: a world-weary protagonist and a hyper-convoluted plot.
You can follow said plot, more or less, and I expended a lot of energy trying to do so. But the film does very little to make you want to follow it, and in the end, it turns out to have been an exercise in pointlessness, an excuse for some cool visuals and neat action sequences. I was ultimately fine with that, but your mileage may vary.
Suffice to say that Lorraine finds herself dropped into the middle of West Berlin tasked with tracking down a very specific watch containing the names of a whole bunch of deep-undercover secret agents — one of whom is working for the Brits but secretly double-crossing them in favor of the communists. She forms tentative alliances with your standard right-hand man (played here by James McAvoy) and falls for a femme fatale (played here by Sofia Boutella), and all of the standard detective noir tropes play out.
The twisty nature of noir storytelling is more of a feature of the genre than a bug. Noir movies are about how it’s all but impossible to separate the corruption that’s baked into humanity from what’s good about it, which means that big, complicated issues hinge on primal personal slights and vice versa. (Famously, Chinatown is all about really tricky water rights — but also about a father sexually abusing his daughter.)
And where Atomic Blonde falls down is that I’m not sure it quite makes the leap from “this is a complicated story of the fall of communism” to “this is also a personal story about what Lorraine is going through in the wake of so much turmoil in her life.” It wants to get there, but there are several scenes where more clarity about who Lorraine is and what she wants might have better served the film.
Nobody in Atomic Blonde is really pushing themselves, but you don’t fill a movie with actors like Theron, McAvoy, Boutella, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, and numerous other well-known names without getting a little boost from just how good they all are. In particular, I loved watching Goodman snarl at Theron and then seeing how she undercut him with a perfectly icy bon mot.
Leitch is not the type of director who elicits Oscar-winning performances from his actors, but he’s really good at getting performers of wildly different varieties into the same headspace. In Atomic Blonde, someone who’s a little more hammy (like McAvoy) is hammy in a way that perfectly aligns with the film’s brooding tone, while someone who’s more naturalistic, like Marsan, tweaks that naturalism just enough to tilt toward ham.
It’s Charlize Theron’s movie, though, and she throws herself into the starring role with gusto. Theron is perhaps the most compelling woman action star since Sigourney Weaver (though this is more due to Hollywood so rarely giving women the chance to excel in these roles than anything else), and Leitch’s camera takes in her form as if she’s a perfectly calibrated machine.
There’s something slightly fetishistic about this. At times, Leitch films Theron like she’s a super-stylish car. He really wants to capture her beauty, but not in a sexualized way. And when she moves — as others step out of her way, like she’s the boulder and they’re the river — you understand why Leitch films her in this fashion. She is both part of this world and also not, slightly alien but trying to relocate her humanity.
It’s a movie star performance, and even if it’s not Theron’s best work, it’s a great reminder of why she’s so fun to watch onscreen.
In the end, what most makes Atomic Blonde easier to take than a lot of movies beloved by the college film bros of the world (and I absolutely count my younger self among their number) is that it has just enough silliness to let you know it understands that it’s a little over-the-top and hard to take. The film has a healthy sense of humor about itself, even amid what would otherwise be a crippling self-seriousness.
Its self-awareness even alleviates some of the storytelling problems I’ve outlined above, to say nothing of the film’s callous disregard for just how much death Lorraine deals. At one point, Goodman’s character (a CIA man) stands atop a random staircase, looking out over the Berlin Wall at East Berlin. The world will change in a few days, he tells Lorraine, as though he knows the wall is about to crumble, or maybe just as if he’s read Atomic Blonde’s screenplay.
The knowing wink to the idea that the complications of this world boil down to an arcane, impossible-to-understand plot carried out by the secret masters of the universe keeps the film from disappearing into its own ponderousness and allows you to hang with it until the next big action moment.
But that quality also reflects a certain timeliness lurking in Atomic Blonde’s heart. When the world seems to be arrayed against you, you can chuckle bitterly or fight back. Or you can chuckle bitterly and then fight back. Atomic Blonde will sometimes make you feel like you’re being smothered by too much of everything — but then it will cut through the noise with the clarity of a great joke and a kick in the face.
Atomic Blonde is playing everywhere. Caution: It may inspire crippling neon light fixture-purchasing habits.