David Leitch | 115 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & Sweden / English, German, Russian & Swedish | 15 / R
The uncredited co-director of John Wick takes sole charge for this action thriller set at the tail-end of the Cold War, which sees Charlize Theron’s British spy dispatched to Berlin to find “The List”, a document naming all the active intelligence agents in the city, which has fallen into the hands of the KGB.
It’s based on The Coldest City, a graphic novel that came out during my relatively brief flirtation with being a proper comic book reader a few years ago. Back then it caught my eye (though I never got round to buying it) because I got the impression it was a Le Carré-style thriller, so I was very surprised to eventually learn it was the basis for this film, the trailers for which promised a hyper-stylised actioner from the director of combat-focused John Wick. Watching the film, however, it’s easier to see how I might not’ve been wrong about the novel after all — take out the elaborate fight scenes and shoot it more like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy than The Guest, and this could indeed be a Le Carré-esque Cold War thriller.
Or maybe that should be “Le Carré wannabe”. The filmmakers were probably right to shift the focus in that way, because the plotting here isn’t up to that standard, particularly in a bevy of last-minute twists that bog down the final ten minutes, especially with their burst of misplaced patriotism (though I won’t say for which country lest it spoil something). Le Carré’s plots feel almost like the definition of substance being more important style (I’ve never actually read one of his books so certainly don’t mean that to be an insult), whereas Atomic Blonde is good ol’ style over substance. The best stuff here lies not in the intricacies of its spy-vs-spy storyline, but in the starkly coloured visuals, the cool ‘80s soundtrack, and (as you’d expect from the stuntman-turned-director behind 50% of John Wick) the expertly realised fight scenes.
Chief among these is an incredible single-take action sequence that goes from a sniper-beset protest march, into a building, up in the elevator, back down the stairwell — all in a series of bruising hand-to-hand fights — and then, for good measure, continues back outside and into a car chase shootout. Obviously the single take aspect must be as faked as Birdman (according to IMDb, it actually includes almost 40 different shots, many stitched together with the aid of CGI — I’d wager mostly during the car chase, which feels less smooth than the rest), but it’s still impressively crafted. The choreography of it all — both the fight moves and the camerawork — really is something else.
Despite the flashiness of that one long section, what’s really effective about all the fight scenes is the level of groundedness. I’m sure they’re not what a real fight is like — they’re still choreographed brawls between trained combatants — but Theron doesn’t take down an army singlehanded, she fights a couple of guys, it’s hard work, and she ends up battered, bruised, and exhausted.
Sadly, between the confused plot and the irritating ending, Atomic Blonde ultimately rubbed me up the wrong way. Still, it’s worth watching for the style and the impressive action scenes. If only they’d managed to combine those with a better story, then this would’ve been something really special.
Atomic Blonde is available on Sky Cinema from today.
David Leitch’s new film, Deadpool 2, is in cinemas everywhere now.