For reasons that have nothing to do with destructive power or hair color, “Atomic Blonde” is no “Wonder Woman.”
Despite its bloody, sharply choreographed action sequences, its widely touted lesbian sex scene – which is hot only if you’re a 16-year-old boy and not a lesbian – and a setting of Cold War Berlin on the eve of the wall coming down, this R-rated comic book of a female-centered spy thriller is as chilly and joyless as the ice bath in which we first meet the title character, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). As the film opens, Lorraine’s naked and bruised body is shown emerging from a tub of frigid water – not, as it would appear, to bring down the swelling brought on by a beating, but because it looks so good on camera.
Optics, not story, rule the day in this stylishly violent film, which was directed by stuntman-turned-filmmaker David Leitch, in a follow-up to his uncredited debut behind the camera in “John Wick.” Like that surprise 2014 hit, which Leitch directed with fellow stunt performer Chad Stahelski, “Blonde” can be, at times, enormous fun to watch. It just feels like work to even think about.
Set in 1989 and sprinkled with nearly two dozen club hits from the era that eventually shift from evocative to intrusive, the movie involves Lorraine’s efforts to retrieve a master list of undercover operatives – code-named, unimaginatively, the List - that has been stolen from a slain MI6 agent (Sam Hargrave) by a KGB assassin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). Framed as one long flashback, as Lorraine is grilled in a London debriefing room by her superior officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA observer (John Goodman), the overly confusing story also tries to gin up suspense with a subplot about the unmasking of a double agent named Satchel.
In the course of this mission, Lorraine crosses paths with the eccentric Berlin MI6 station chief (James McAvoy, having almost as much fun as he did in “Split”), a sexy French operative named Delphine (Sofia Boutella), an East German defector who has memorized the List (Eddie Marsan) and a host of Communist thugs who are trying to kill her. Late in the film, one marvelous piece of extended combat, staged mostly in an apartment building stairwell, goes on for minutes and involves multiple fights with multiple opponents using fists, feet, guns, knives and automobiles.
But rather than helping to untangle the thicket of the (unfortunately rather boring) intrigue around which all this action is structured, the framing device of the London interrogation room – which features would-be hard-boiled dialogue that could be called “noir lite” – only serves to rob the film of momentum every time it cuts away from the kiss-kiss and the bang-bang, which is all anyone should (and will) care about.
“Atomic Blonde” is a live-action cartoon for grown-ups, yet it is far from a grown-up film.
True to the eye-candy aesthetic of its source material, the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, the film makes it hard to feel much of anything about anyone. Keanu Reeves’ single-minded hit man John Wick, for his part, was motivated by the love for a dog – not to mention his dead wife. And there was a certain spirit of self-aware unseriousness to that film that defused criticism of its gleeful one-dimensionality.
Lorraine, on the other hand, is entirely coldblooded and self-important, like the film itself. Leitch’s attempt to convince us that she has an actual human emotional response to Delphine, or to the Frenchwoman’s fate, rings entirely false.
Ultimately, “Atomic Blonde” is, like its heroine, something of a machine. Lit by glowing neon, fueled by the rhythm of ’80s power pop and fashioned from stiletto heels, cigarettes, guns and sunglasses, it looks and sounds good, but it isn’t much of a conversationalist.