The summer of 2017 sure seemed like a great one for Hollywood. Marvel kept doing its thing, DC actually seemed to get things back on track a little, franchises that had delivered before kept delivering. Granted, there was some crap like Transformers 5 and The Mummy out there, but no one really expected much from those and the movies people actually had high hopes for really did deliver. In fact, by the time Dunkirk came out Hollywood had managed to go four straight weeks putting out really high quality big budget films like Baby Driver, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and War for the Planet of the Apes. Fun as it all was, it sure seemed to come to an abrupt and early end. In fact, August has been downright dismal. We’ve mostly been treated to disappointing bombs like The Dark Tower and unambitious nonsense like Annabelle: Creation. Clearly someone in Hollywood got their papers mixed up as they clearly should have spread out their solid July movies a bit more evenly across the summer. It’s in this vacuum of options that, late in August, I decided to go back and give a shot to a film that had been out for a couple of weeks already called Atomic Blonde which hadn’t seemed overly interesting in the film’s advertising but which had its clear defenders who had mentioned a couple of cool action scenes that I felt like I needed to give a look.
The film is set in 1989 right around the fall of the Berlin Wall. As the film opens a British agent named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent named Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) who then steals a microfilm he was carrying which contained a list of all the active field agents in the USSR. The film then cuts to ten days later, after the main events of the film, to a framing story where our protagonist Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed on her mission to retrieve this list by an MI6 leader named Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent named Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). From here she tells a story about her interactions with Britain’s head agent in East Berlin named David Percival (James McAvoy), a French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi defector known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).
The first thing that strikes me about Atomic Blonde is that it isn’t as action driven as its advertising, credit font, and silly title would have you believe. At its heart is a fairly gritty espionage story that takes the cold war pretty seriously and seems to be heavily inspired by the writing of authors like John le Carré. The film is also really confusing. It’s the kind of twisty spy story where people are constantly double and triple crossing each other and you’re never really sure who’s on what side and quickly lose track of what the McGuffin is and why you care about it. I’d be lying if I said I kept it all straight on one viewing, and I do think some of that confusion is on the movie. Director David Leitch (one of the duo of directors who made the first John Wick film) seems a bit out of his element here and doesn’t really tell this complex story with the same skill and clarity of someone like Brian De Palma making the first Mission: Impossible movie. What’s more, I think there are elements in this script that genuinely don’t make a lot of sense. For example, as far as I can tell this list everyone is chasing around is an MI:6 list that had fallen into KGB hands and needed to be retrieved lest the KGB use it to murder all of Britain’s undercover assets. So why the hell does Broughton end up spending a great deal of effort trying to move an asset who’s memorized this list out of East Berlin? Would it not be in her interest if this guy died? Wouldn’t that be a much more effective way of ensuring the Russians never get the list that’s confined to this guy’s memory?
Whether or not it makes sense for Broughton to be smuggling this guy out of East Germany (a country that will cease to exist a week later, making this mission seem… premature) there’s no denying that it provides us with a great action scene. The film is clearly at its best when it drops any pretense of being a serious cold war thriller and just lets Charlize Theron kick some asses. I’m not usually one to prefer mindless violence over storytelling ambition but its plainly obvious that David Leitch is more in his element when our heroine starts fighting fools than when she’s tracking down sources and determining the loyalties of the people she encounters and I don’t think he has quite the touch to make this the stylish 80s movie he seems to want it to be either. At the end of the day this is a movie that’s undone by the fact that its style and genre ambitions are at odds with its screenplay. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be and that’s something that escapist action films desperately need to pin down. That said there are things to enjoy here. That aforementioned fight scene is awesome and so is a car chase that follows shortly thereafter. For some that dessert will be worth the at best middling main course.