‘Atomic Blonde’ Review: Action Can’t Salvage Charlize Theron’s Dull Spy Movie

This action sequence is great, too bad about the rest of 'Atomic Blonde.' Focus Features

The centerpiece action scene in Atomic Blonde is everything you’d expect from David Leitch, one of the directors of John Wick. Lorraine (Charlize Theron), the titular Atomic Blonde, brawls with Soviet hatchetmen through an East Berlin apartment building, the extended fight going up and down stairs and through dingy flats, all in a seemingly single take. Lorraine clocks big fellows with two-burner camp stoves, gun butts and elbows, one guy meeting his end with a wine corkscrew up his armpit, yank, then under his neck. She comes out battered and wheezing, barely able to stand as the shot continues out into the streets, tracking with her as she rams her getaway car through the blossoming protests heading for their world-changing 1989 encounter with the Berlin Wall. Another beat-’em-up sequence earlier in the movie, with Lorraine whipping through Berlin police with a length of rubber hose, is shorter, but very nearly as impressive in its orchestration and fluid brutality. So it’s a major bummer to report that, action excepting, Atomic Blonde is a dud, the ignition charge only sputtering.

Opening with the death of Gascoine, Lorraine’s lover and the last possessor of a list that could expose every spy in the field (is there a more common or duller MacGuffin than that?), Atomic Blonde soon sees Lorraine teaming up with British agent Percival (James McAvoy) in Berlin to track down the list and uncover the double agent, Satchel.

Lorraine’s introduction is arresting. Soaking in a bathtub of ice, she emerges to reveal both musculature and bruises, her body covered in wounds, one eye punched nearly shut. Too bad then that we go from this to a debriefing room, where Atomic Blonde’s frame story gets busy boring us. Toby Jones and John Goodman (what a duo), representing British and American intelligence, interrogate her story, already knocking back the actual events of Atomic Blonde’s plot into flashback and promising constant interruptions to any actual momentum. Rather than a living, breathing plot, Atomic Blonde begins by dissecting itself.

The best spy movies turn on essential inscrutability of people. Our motives can only be known to ourselves; every day we act as agent and double agent, playing on ambiguities and construing or misconstruing the ambiguities of others. In The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the best movie to straddle the Berlin Wall, amorality becomes the lynchpin of geopolitics, with the spy services protecting the useful villains over anyone with an actual ideal or coherent worldview.

Atomic Blonde got the amorality part, but fails to look in from outside of it, preferring plot to psychology. Its characters are all flash, lacking the soul to believably back the convoluted plot and multiplying twists. We’re watching coldly self-serving sociopaths play a boardgame with no stakes. Who could care if these people get exposed and their useless back-and-forth game crumbles?

Particularly obnoxious is McAvoy’s Percival, who we’re told is a canny operator, but soon reveals himself to be a loud mix of club kid and Tyler Durden. We first see him shouting “alcohol is good, information is better!” in the middle of a Berlin nightclub and handing out bottles of Jack Daniels in exchange for intel. Apparently the master spy at work shouts stuff like “straight from the tits of the Virgin Mary” and “Wait until you see my balls, then you’ll be very impressed!”

Movies that are all assholes and action can work, but it better be stylish. And while Atomic Blonde wants very much to be chic, aesthetically it falls more on the Suicide Squad side of that blurry line between fashionable and try-hard. The color palette is particularly bleak: despite splashes of neon and locations named with spray-paint stencils Atomic Blonde is overwhelmingly gray and washed out. It depressed my eyes. Even more miserable is the music — a predictable 80s mixtape that’s often used in unimaginatively “ironic” fashion, like beating a guy to death with a skateboard while “99 Luftballons” plays. Even more than its failures of plot and character, Atomic Blonde is unpleasant because it’s unpleasant looking.

“Who won? And what was the game anyway?” Percival asks late in Atomic Blonde, questions the movie can’t answer. Instead, it’s an unfortunate admission. But those fantastic action scenes will probably be on YouTube soon after Atomic Blonde’s July 28 release date.

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