Raleigh, N.C. — There’s a weird sub-genre of action movies that something like Atomic Blonde occupies. Boiling it down to the most basic of descriptions, Atomic Blonde is a schlocky, B-level action movie, and maybe that is all the analysis that needs to be done. But the movie comes at a time when John Wick, the most schlocky of B-level action franchises has shown Hollywood that there is interest in 70s and 80s style plots set in neon worlds. There has to be a name for that type of movie!
Atomic Blonde has a literal 80s style plot. The movie is set in West Berlin, days before the Wall came down. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy sent to town to recover the body of one of her colleagues who was killed by the Soviets. That colleague had information about the whereabouts of a list that contained details on every spy working on both sides of the Wall.
When Lorraine gets to town, she is in the hands of David Percival (Split’s James McCoy), a washed out MI6 agent who has been bouncing between the two Berlins so long that his bosses in London have stopped caring about how he does his job. Percival hosts parties at his East Berlin base, which looks oddly like the set of Michael Jackson’s “Bad Video,” where he runs a nice little side business selling American made blue jeans and liquor to Soviet teenagers. His primary employer has him in the midst of trying to smuggle an asset he calls Spyglass (Ray Donovan’s Eddie Marsen) out of East Berlin. Spyglass has memorized every piece of information on that list Lorraine’s colleague was killed for.
Along the way, Lorraine dons a number of different wigs, we learn that spies hide messages on the gears of watches, which seems very inconvenient, and she begins a relationship with a French spy named Delphine LaSalle (The Mummy’s Sofia Boutella). Two things on that last point. First, doesn’t the name Delphine LaSalle sound like a very uncreative screenwriter just picked two very French sounding names out of the sky and jammed them together? Secondly, I like lesbian scenes as much as the next guy, but can we please stop filling movies that bill themselves as female empowerment with this stuff?
That last point is probably more on the marketing department than the filmmakers. Or hell, it is most likely on people like me that see the trailer for Atomic Blonde and dismiss it until I see a brief flash of Sofia Boutella and Charlize Theron in bed together. Whatever the case, shame!
So is Atomic Blonde good? Well, it’s not not good if that counts. That weird sub-genre of movies I was talking about earlier gets something very right about scriptwriting, and that is that if these characters live in a world free of consequence, then nothing has to make sense. John Wick and the more recent Fast and the Furious movies have taught us that audiences will reward movies that shamelessly embrace how stupid they are. And make no mistake, I am saying that is a good thing.
Look, there isn’t much of a script here. That’s why we have not one, but two 15-minute long fight scenes, and the ending is so convoluted filled with double and triple crosses, that it is easy to forget who is on whose team, but the script isn’t what stunt man turned director David Lietch wants you to remember about Atomic Blonde. He wants you to remember Lorraine stabbing a Soviet thug in the neck with a car key. He wants you to remember the spectacular car crashes. Nothing is too dumb for this script and that’s kinda why it works.
By the way, are we at a point in movie history where any B-movie about a woman out for revenge/blood is going to star Charlize Theron? I mean it’s fine if we are. Mad Max: Fury Road and the Fate of the Furious have proven she is adept in those roles. It’s just an odd career turn for someone with an Oscar.
Can you do better than Atomic Blonde? Of course you can, but this is the summer. Stupidity reigns in summer. The question you need to answer is do you want joyless, completely self-unaware stupid like Transformers or a movie that is in on the joke enough to revel in what it is without insulting you for enjoying it?
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.