From the trailers, if you thought Atomic Blonde was a female character-driven answer to the instant cult classic Keanu Reeves action vehicle John Wick (2014), then you’d be mostly right. Starring the very talented Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton) as a rear-kicking cold war-era spy and based on the The Coldest City graphic novel, like John Wick, Atomic Blonde is a very stylish and often pulsating film that offers many delicious action set pieces. Heck it’s even directed by David Leitch who happened to co-direct the first John Wick and produce the second (he actually left John Wick Chapter 2 to direct Atomic Blonde). What’s more, it is shot by Jonathan Sela who was also the cinematographer behind John Wick. But as fun as Atomic Blonde is, it’s no John Wick.
Don’t get me wrong, the action sequences offered here are some of the best of the year. The cinematography, choreography and editing, much like John Wick, help this film gain a certain poetic elegance even when there is utter brutality on screen. Yes, Theron could be covered in the most colourful of bruises, fighting mercenaries in the stairwell during what feels like a bloodier version of a scene from Netflix’s Daredevil, and the entire sequence will come across beautiful in the composition of its savagery.
But where John Wick was so good in its storytelling and characterisation, Atomic Blonde feels clumsy as far as narrative, pacing and backstory go. Charlize Theron is superb in the film, exuding charisma, but her character isn’t particularly well-developed. This is also the case with other characters. Take for example James McAvoy (David Percival). He delivers a fairly good performance as an MI6 agent in Berlin who acts as a contact for Broughton, but his character isn’t particularly interesting either.
Atomic Blonde comes across as a giant spy movie cliché
The main issue is that the plot of Atomic Blonde comes across as a giant spy movie cliché. You’ve seen it all before: Broughton is one of the stars of MI6 and is tasked with retrieving a secret list that carries the names of every MI6 spy in the Soviet Union. This list was stolen by Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) after MI6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) was assassinated. Gasciogne, naturally, was romantically involved with our hero just to give her mission a personal touch. In short, the plot of Atomic Blonde reads like a mishmash of every other James Bond and Jason Bourne film you’ve seen.
My gut says that Atomic Blonde happened because the powers that be were already looking to ape John Wick and simply found a graphic novel that served the purpose. It’s too bad that they picked The Coldest City (2002) which is a fun book but isn’t original enough to translate into a good film. Strangely, instead of changing the less interesting plot elements, the writers added a lesbian romance in Atomic Blonde, which makes for a steamy gratuitous sex scene, but also adds to the film’s coarseness.
Narrative issues aside, the film also tries too hard with its ’80s music. A few months ago, we had Baby Driver that exhibited how to perfectly implement that style of music in an action film, and here we have Atomic Blonde with its more heavy-handed attempts at creating the same atmosphere.
Despite these misgivings I really did enjoy Atomic Blonde. As I said, the action sequences are some of the best of the year, and it is refreshing to see a female action hero. Hopefully, the sequel to Atomic Blonde will be as compelling in terms of writing as it will be in terms of action. Maybe it will even have Atomic Blonde face off John Wick.
Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality/nudity
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 6th, 2017