Based on the trailers and talent attached, Charlize Theron’s summer action vehicle, Atomic Blonde, has all the makings of a fun escape that should thrill, excite, and entertain audiences. Unfortunately, the film is a flop that does little to live up to the promise the promotions and trailers highlight. On paper, this is a movie that should work and work well; however, the final product is a jumbled mess of a story, characters that are flat, pacing slower than molasses, and carries a tone that is just out-of-place. While the movie is seriously flawed and disappointing, the visuals and aesthetics are better than decent, the all 80’s soundtrack is fantastic, the action sequences are stellar, and the cast is chock full of talent. So why did this movie miss the mark so badly?
Atomic Blonde could have worked if it didn’t try so hard to be Jason Bourne. The movie is about an MI6 agent named Lorraine, played by the beautiful Charlize Theron, who is assigned a mission to retrieve a stolen list of allied secret agents’ identities from cold war era Berlin. The plot is so generic and overplayed that you start to think that the film will lean on fun original characters and great action to compensate for the simple and rehashed story, which it does not. Making matters worse and more frustrating for viewers is that the movie is told via flashbacks during the British agent’s debriefing. This is another tired plot device that doesn’t do anything to enhance the story but seemingly is a crutch used to patch holes and provide exposition. The interview scenes also make the movie drag and become boring. There were times when I was praying for action or some kind of twist that would breathe life back into the flick.
Lorraine’s debriefing feels more like an interrogation led by heads of MI6 and the CIA, played by Tobey Jones and John Goodman respectively. The intercut transitions to Lorraine’s mission and her interview highlight the generic characters and spy story Atomic Blonde is while attempting to be something loftier. This movie could have been so much more enjoyable if it tried to mimic the tone of movies like Red, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kick-Ass, or John Wick. The plot is too boring, convoluted, and dry to be entertaining. What it needed was an injection of levity and fun and at least two additional action sequences.
James McAvoy plays David, another MI6 agent living in Soviet Berlin and Lorraine’s contact for the mission. McAvoy delivers a solid performance but for a character whose motives are never clearly defined and who is written to be as clichéd a spy as the archetype can possibly be penned. The fact that his character is teetering on the edge of corruption and total depravity does nothing to set him apart from any run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter secret agent we’ve seen in a dozen other movies. There is surprisingly zero chemistry between McAvoy and Theron’s characters and the scenes they share fall short of anything more than lame. It’s hard to blame the actors with a script that’s trying too hard and doing too much. I wish the filmmakers would have copied the John Wick formula of drafting a minimalistic plot, creating a fresh and unique world of killers, showing a clear inciting incident for the hero, and letting the action play out.
The action sequences are truly wonderful. From the choreography to the special effects and stunt work, it’s hard not to be impressed and enthralled by them when those scenes play out. Regretfully, there are really only four major action set pieces, three of which lasted less than four minutes, and there were plenty of opportunities to work in more violence and thrills into the film that would have made sense. What made this viewing so sub-par was how little creative effort it would have taken to make Atomic Blonde worthwhile, and maybe even franchise worthy.
While I’m not usually a film critic who is either for or against gratuitous nudity or sex, I was bothered by the inclusion of it here. Charlize does a have a couple of nude scenes that were tastefully done and actually serve to do a hefty majority of the little character building I could discern or identify for Lorraine, but when she has a lesbian encounter I was scratching my head. During the sex scene, I found myself sighing out loud. The lesbian sex was unnecessary and it felt like the filmmakers were trying to appease their core demographic and apologize for the boring ride they set us on by giving hetero male action movie fans something they knew they would enjoy.
In the end, I can’t say that this movie is terrible, but I can’t say it’s good either. In other words, I’m very happy I went to an early showtime and paid matinee prices for the ticket. I would not recommend seeing Atomic Blonde in theaters or even on pay-per-view but would say to those who are curious, you should wait for it to be released on a premium network or streaming service if you really want to watch it. All of that to say, unless you have a major crush on Charlize Theron, know that by passing on seeing Atomic Blonde you aren’t missing anything more than a few fun action sequences and well-executed art design set to a great soundtrack.
Reel Talk gives Atomic Blonde 1.5 Reels