Berlin, 1989. The Wall is about to fall, but the Cold War isn’t over yet. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron: The Fate of the Furious, Kubo and the Two Strings) is sent in to retrieve a missing list of all spies and operatives on all sides, if she can find it before the Soviets do. It’s an “atomic bomb of information,” not least because the list includes the identity of a double agent known as Satchel. Atomic Blonde — I guess because she’s so hot? *facepalm* — is told in flashback, as Broughton is debriefed back in London after the mission. Did she succeed? Who is Satchel? Is it MI6’s man in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy: Split, X-Men: Apocalypse)? (He seems pretty shifty.) Can we believe anything she is telling the spymasters, either MI6’s (Toby Jones: Morgan, Anthropoid) or the CIA’s (John Goodman: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Kong: Skull Island)?
The answers are more convoluted than even a wannabe-twisty spy thriller needs to be, when it isn’t totally clichéd (“Trust no one,” Broughton was warned, natch), and the intrigue is more confusing than these blah characters earn: they’re simply nowhere near engaging enough to hold our interest while the plot warps unnecessarily around them.
Style, though: Atomic Blonde is dripping with it. Of course there’s lots of 80s pop and rock, especially with a German inflection — Alles klar, Herr Kommissar? — and retro brands — PanAm! — but it’s during the inevitable fight sequences that the movie springs temporarily to living, breathing, bleeding life. Stuntman David Leitch makes his directorial debut, and he knows not only how to stage hand-to-hand combat but how to shoot it, too, so that it’s breathtakingly thrilling.
The centerpiece sequence is a massive battle of fisticuffs that ranges up and down the stairwell of an apartment building, and appears to be one long uncut blitz of punches and bullets that then escapes into the street and escalates through the city. (The cuts are sneakily hidden; Leitch has said he was inspired by a technically similar sequence in Children of Men.) It makes for a refreshing change for the action genre, too, that Broughton and her male opponents actually suffer as human beings really do when taking a beating: their brawling is messy, nasty, and takes a physical toll so palpable that we can almost feel it.
Alas, sharing a sympathetic wince of pain as Broughton struggles to her feet to finish off a bad guy is the closest we come to feeling anything at all here. And with a screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300: Rise of an Empire, 300), based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde struggles to overcome the sense that it’s more male fantasy than feminist: Broughton may fight in practical flat boots, not impossible stilettos, but gender-swapping her French contact in Berlin from the source material, so that it’s now a woman agent (Sofia Boutella: Star Trek Beyond, Kingsman: The Secret Service) whom Broughton has sexytimes with, plays more like dudely delusions about lesbians than anything progressive. Neither Theron’s influence behind the scenes as a producer nor her onscreen command and competence can quite prevail when multiple male gazes are at work.