There are movies where style is absolutely a substitute for substance; where a strong enough lead performance, amazingly choreographed sequences, eye-catching cinematography, and editing choices, among other elements can carry the weight of a lighter plot, inconsistent tone, or flat characters. Not quite incidentally, John Wick: Chapter 2 falls into this category more than the first one does, leaning heavily on a lot of the work John Wick did in establishing the series’ characters and world. Unfortunately, Atomic Blonde, while seemingly intentionally trying to pull this off by having style oozing from every angle and frame, can’t hurdle over its complete emptiness otherwise. All clothes, no emperor.
The year is 1989, the Berlin Wall is a week from falling, and MI6 have misplaced a microfilm containing information on every single allied agent in the USSR somewhere on the wrong side of the Wall. They send Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to retrieve it before it ends up in the hands of the Soviets, and while there she has to contend and adapt to her contact in the field, rogue MI6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy); a number of other agents, both allied and opposed, including at least one double agent; and the Berlin police.
The plot is relayed to us in retrospect, as Lorraine is debriefed back at MI6, which drastically takes a lot of tension out of the plot, which – for as hard as it is to follow – really should be richer. As it is, I was lost through much of the movie trying to keep straight who was allied with who, who’s lying to someone else, who’s being used, who’s being fooled, etc. It’s one of those movies where we’re given a defined narrator and still get scenes from other perspectives of things she shouldn’t know about; and it’s never made clear when – if ever – she’s supposed to be lying to us or the other characters. By the end of the movie one character is revealed to be at least a quadruple agent, at least two of those turns coming in the last five minutes, and neither of which is given space enough to land with the audience. It’s the sort of plot I’d like to say was written mainly to ferry us from one fight scene to the next, but it’s so distractingly complicated that it’s difficult to not try to piece things together as if there was some sort of logic.
Those fight scenes, meanwhile, are almost worth it. The much anticipated “stairway fight,” presented as a single take that follows Lorraine from the top of a building to the bottom and out into a car chase as she fights off waves of KGB agents after her and a human package she’s meant to deliver is an extraordinary spectacle of choreography, blocking, and camerawork that reaches its climax when the camera pulls into the car right next to Theron as she drives through Berlin’s backways. And that’s just one sequence. All the fights in this movie are fantastic, and though director David Leitch’s style isn’t as novel after two John Wick movies, having tall, lean, and leggy Charlize Theron instead of a more traditional male action hero necessitates a change in fighting styles that keeps things fresh.
Epitomizing the entirety of Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron comes off as impossibly cool, with a posh English accent, platinum blonde hair, steely blue eyes, a should-be lethal smoking habit, and a wardrobe of 80’s fashions that all look gorgeous on her regardless of black eyes and other bruises. A female Bond in almost every respect, she’s who woman want to be and men (and women) want to be with. However, also like Bond, she’s almost completely anti-sympathetic; too unflappable to be relatable, even at her most vulnerable.
And this extends to the rest of the movie. A largely grey-blue palette, the overly complicated plot and the framing device, showy camera-work and shot set-up, and a soundtrack that goes too heavy on the 80’s new-wave hits all distance the audience from the movie. The 80’s were a stylish time, and the movie wants you to know that, filling itself with neon, punk stylings, and way too many needle-drops that do a lot to remind you about the 80’s without informing you any about the characters or plot. The soundtrack may be the most distracting part of the movie’s aesthetic, popping up diagetically during some moments, but not others; and never behaving completely diagetically, changing volume and cutting in-and-out of songs before they can fully tie into the rest of the scene. Yeah, “99 Luftballons” and “Under Pressure” are great songs, but including them doesn’t do much to compliment the story or characters, they’re just cool songs in a movie trying way too hard to be cool.