The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Atomic Blonde, as a spray-painted title card informs us, is not about that. A shame, really: the fall of the Wall would have made a more interesting story than Atomic Blonde’s tiredly clichéd Cold War spy shenanigans. But then, no one’s here for the plot, are they? No, we’re here for the style, the flair, the fashion, the music. Atomic Blonde has all that in spades.
The film positively oozes style. There’s those spray paint title cards, accompanied by the rattle of of a spray can and the hiss of the nozzle. The colour palette is that of a twilit Las Vegas back alley: urban grey smothered in primary-colour graffiti and draped in gaudy neon. David Leitch, former stunt coordinator and uncredited co-director of John Wick, stays true to the material’s comic book origins, capturing his action with bold, punchy compositions.
And, of course, there’s the music. Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack is a wet dream for anyone stuck in the ‘80s. New Order’s “Blue Monday”, Bowie’s “Cat People” (film version, sadly), The Clash’s “London Calling”, “99 Red Balloons” (German version, obviously). There’s nothing better than music to establish a time and place, and from its first scene Atomic Blonde makes it perfectly clear: this is the 1980s.
The place is Berlin. The plot (as if it matters) concerns a MacGuffin that has gone missing, as MacGuffins are wont to do, and the MI6 agent sent to find it. That agent is Lorraine Broughton, played by Charlize Theron. Theron seems to be auditioning for a female James Bond (wouldn’t that be a fine thing?), and does a damn fine job of it. She ticks all the boxes. Theron’s Broughton, like the best Bonds, is reticent, endlessly capable, with a dry wit and a penchant for the ladies.
Something else Broughton has in common with Bond: both seem incapable of avoiding violence. Atomic Blonde’s brawls are brutal, bloody, and occasionally inventive. Broughton battles an entire precinct-worth of police officers, then hurls herself out of a window, using a downed officer as an anchor. She dukes it out with an assailant behind a cinema screen (showing Tarkovsky’s Stalker), punching and blocking in stark silhouette.
The highlight is an extended scuffle in a staircase that comes late in the film. The entire sequence lasts about five minutes, and is presented as a single gruelling take. The camera follows Broughton – fighting all the way – down the stairwell, through rooms, and even outside the building. It’s a bravura piece of a filmmaking, bringing to mind the jaw-dropping single take action scenes of Cuarón’s Children of Men. Hats off to cinematographer Jonathan Sela. When the scene does finally cut, Broughton looks exhausted, as well she should. She looks how we feel.
That scene is the high point of Atomic Blonde, in more ways than one. It’s all downhill from there. There’s another forty minutes of film after the staggering staircase skirmish, and it’s a real slog. A flabby second act, and a plot that keeps interfering, ensure that Atomic Blonde is, all in all, about twenty minutes too long.
When it wants to be, Atomic Blonde is a graffiti covered, neon drenched, snare drum banging delight. When it’s being stylish, brutal, or stylishly brutal, it’s a ton of fun. Unfortunately, when it’s not, it’s not.