'Atomic Blonde' SXSW 2017 Review: Spy Film's Fun, But Disposable

Charlize Theron in ‘Atomic Blonde’ (Photo: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures)
Charlize Theron in ‘Atomic Blonde’ (Photo: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures)

By John DeFore, The Hollywood Reporter

Just in time for the Cold War Revival comes David Leitch‘s Atomic Blonde, a rock ’em, sock ’em spy tale set during the final days of the Berlin Wall. Playing the eponymous heroine (whose abilities, title notwithstanding, aren’t limited to hotness or hair color), Charlize Theron has all the steely cool such a movie needs but is forced to keep her wit stashed somewhere alongside her fake passports. Based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston, it’s no rival for John le Carré when it comes to the old cross/double-cross stuff; but a surfeit of style and a tasty supporting turn by James McAvoy help fill the time between fight scenes, which — this being a film by the stuntman/co-director behind John Wick — are pretty much the whole point.

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Theron enters the pic wearing nothing but bruises, tons of them, which she’s soothing with an ice-filled bathtub and a less ice-heavy glass of vodka. Her Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 operative just returned from Berlin, due for a debrief with her handlers (Toby Jones and a CIA figure played by John Goodman) about her recent attempts to retrieve “The List” — a full roster of Her Majesty’s secret agents — and the Ruskie defector (Eddie Marsan, wasted) responsible for intercepting it.

As she sits in a room not very unlike one where a different blonde was interrogated in Basic Instinct, Lorraine recalls her arrival in Berlin and first meeting with partner David Percival, an agent who has gone not just native but “feral.” McAvoy bites into the role with the same relish shown in Split, embracing the city’s artsy underbelly as enthusiastically as a British pop musician looking for a creative reboot. (Could the film’s music team, which pastes an unimaginative array of ’80s hits across the soundtrack, not have matched Percival’s curiosity a bit?)

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Given the vices we see Percival indulge, we’re not surprised that he immediately lies to Lorraine. But is he lying for good reason, in case she’s the infamous double-agent called Satchel, or for more nefarious purposes? And what of the French agent (Star Trek Beyond‘s Sofia Boutella) who spies on Lorraine and soon winds up in bed with her? Is she Satchel? (If this retro-mad movie had any sense of humor at all, the pair’s showy writhing under lurid fluorescent lights would be accompanied by Top Gun‘s “Take My Breath Away” — which doesn’t just fit the aesthetic, but was performed by a band named Berlin.)

Questions of loyalty and honesty are, to be frank, not very interesting here. Fortunately, there’s the mystery of all those bruises covering Lorraine’s body. Leitch gives a couple of good tastes of his action sensibility early in the film, one involving a useful coil of garden hose. But genre fans will likely be so taken by the main event that they forget any storytelling disappointment leading up to it: A long sequence in the third act, in which Lorraine fights her way through an apartment house’s stairwell, is one for the ages, a bring-the-pain endurance test in which opponents seem nearly impossible to kill. Theron punches through it with a fierceness to match Min-sik Choi in Oldboy or Matt Damon in the Bourne franchise.

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The more obvious comparison, of course, is with the latest, earthily violent incarnation of James Bond. As enjoyable as Atomic Blonde can be at times, its main utility may be its demonstration that Theron deserves better than this. If not a reincarnation in which James becomes “Bond, Jane Bond,” then at least something with more staying power than this actioner, which looks good and gets some things right, but is as uninterested in its protagonist’s personality as its generic name suggests.

‘Atomic Blonde’: Watch a red-band trailer (NSFW):