The Cold War and spy films go hand in hand. We’ve got the historic, (Bridge of Spies), those that could be historic (The Lives of Others), and the fantasized fictional (Bond, James Bond). Based on a graphic novel, Atomic Blonde is very much the latter, an uber stylized Cold War action flick, the setting providing an excuse for Charlize Theron to kick some major ass. But for all the style, it’s a shame that behind the slick veneer it’s all just so basic.
Stop me if you’ve heard any of these before. Stolen spy lists. Double agents. Competing espionage agencies going after the same thing. It’s all very paint by the numbers spy stuff. There’s not much need to go into the basic premise because that’s pretty much all there is to it. The style provides a welcome distraction for the first half of the film, but it quickly wears thin. For every interesting shot or musical cue, there isn’t enough engaging material to compliment it. Which is a shame since there is so much talent involved here. Theron nails the role of a cold, no nonsense spy. She pulls off her action scenes and this could have become a viable vehicle for her own action franchise if her character was more engaging. James McAvoy is captivating as usual, giving more to his role than it actually deserves. The characters are paper thin and the actors deserved better.
It feels like this film was just made as an excuse to throw together some cool looking action sequences with the backdrop of Berlin just before the Wall fell. And on that front it succeeds. The excellent soundtrack along with the exceptional lighting and framing trick you into thinking Atomic Blonde is more memorable than it actually is. I can’t help but compare it to Baby Driver, which while also being a seen it before story, does pretty much everything better, from the editing in the action sequences, to building tension, and getting the viewer invested in the characters. While Baby Driver backed up its cool factor with some actual substance, Atomic Blonde goes all in on the former at the great expense of the latter.
The failures of Atomic Blonde can be pinned pretty directly on the source material and screenplay. Other than the hook that the agent here is female, the plot is so been there, done that that I can’t help but muster any enthusiasm. It doesn’t help that we’re not given any real reason to care about any of the characters, except for the resolution of the plot. For all that it could have been, Atomic Blonde fails because the story it’s trying to tell isn’t particularly good, nor is it executed well. Come for the production design and the action sequences, leave for pretty much everything else. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go watch Octopussy. And, while it may not be great, at least it knows what it is, which is more than I can say for Atomic Blonde.