'Atomic Blonde' a Sleek, Brisk, Stylized Doppelganger

Directed by: David Leitch; Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: B-

Yeah, Atomic Blonde ends up being exactly the way it looks -- the female version of John Wick -- but that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. With the right woman filling the void and a smart grasp on the style that's going to overpower the substance, a tweaked riff on the gritty, quasi-realistic combat and gunplay could undoubtedly coexist with the latest Keanu Reeves' property. Fresh off her career rejuvenating performance in Mad Max Fury Road, a physically and emotionally demanding role, Charlize Theron's furious gazes and fierce, yet vulnerable body language fits snugly within the boundaries of a global agent adept in martial arts and marksmanship. Theron's the Atomic Blonde, and she hits the bullseye with her captivating turn as a sleek, assertive killer; however, the film that throttles and glows around her tries to one-up the same styling from John Wick instead of executing its own aesthetic, and the shaky, threadbare espionage plotting that surrounds it doesn't do that familiarity any favors.

Atomic Blonde adapts Antony Johnson's "The Coldest Night", which is set in late-‘80s Cold War-era Germany shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. High-level British agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) plops down at an interrogation table, showing the clear signs of surviving more than a few ordeals before she arrived. Seated in front of her are MI6 bigwig Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA exec Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), and they're inquiring about the murder of field agent James Gascoigne and the location of The List ™, a rundown of operatives -- on both the UK/US side and for the Soviets -- that has been concealed within a wristwatch. Lorraine had been tasked with meeting up with contact David Percival (a sturdy James McAvoy doing his best Tyler Durden impression) so she could recover the list and assassinate the double-agent believed to be at the center of the agent's death and the disappearance of the watch. Of course, Lorraine sitting in front of them indicates that all didn't go smoothly, and the film's flashbacks elaborate on the reasons why.

Though he didn't receive a screen credit, David Leitch had nearly as much to do with the success of John Wick as co-director Chad Stahelski, which can be strongly felt in the stylistic punch of Atomic Blonde. Bathed in icy-cold cinematography that's warmed up with neon radiance and sporting a vigorous pulse of ‘80s music, this almost feel like a prequel or extension of that assassins' universe, making comparisons drawn between ‘em both effortless and necessary. Despite the shift in era, the thickness of British accents, and touches of enhanced style with Lorraine's wardrobe -- a particularly engaging fight involves a black turtleneck pulled up over her pale face and platinum hair, not unlike a ninja -- much of Atomic Blonde's look operates on transplanting the aesthetics that worked in Leitch's prior effort and turning up the dial. Like this, while appealing, the era's tunes powering the film's energy seem on-the-nose in their frequency, and the strategic framing of Lorraine submerged in electric glow as she stands barside or connects investigative dots at "home" can be both mesmerizing and redundant in execution.

The expectation for Atomic Blonde, as if the title weren't an indication, seems to be that the presence of Charlize Theron will prove strong enough to not only distract from the film's doppelganger tendencies, but that she'll embrace the overarching mood and make it her own through a committed performance. This works, to an extent. Theron poured heaps of energy into preparing for the role's physicality, both from a purely athletic standpoint and that of surgical martial-arts execution, and she embraces a distinct, honest badass espionage warrior in Lorraine. The glossiness and bluntness of the film's style doesn't carry over to her handling of the combat: Theron makes her appear skilled yet not mechanically so, lending realism to movement when she blocks attacks and launches her own. She also isn't merely a glossy superspy with her interactions, either, to which her performance reveals a steeled, yet wide-eyed human being who must actively maintain her composure and who can't resist temptations and seduction, punctuated by her evolving relationship with French low-level spy, Delphine (Sofia Boutella).

Atomic Blonde encompasses Charlize Theron with heaps of eye candy, from submerging her body in an ice-filled bathtub and wrapping her face with bold red lighting to silhouetting her combat-ready physique against a bright screen, a not-so-subtle nod to both Kill Bill and Highlander. The visuals can't conceal its lackluster plot, though, one that erroneously places faith on the Cold War-era historical essence -- and the toppling of the Berlin Wall -- as a sufficient propellant. While it's admirable to see the script take a stab at world-building by emphasizing watches and watch dealers as a clandestine culture, a creative way of transmitting info through the moving parts of the time piece, the practicality of its implementation leaves a lot to be desired, especially once the notion of someone accurately memorizing an entire list of names anyway comes into the equation. The conceit of the film also echoes another past exercise in espionage, that of Mission Impossible and its passed-around, highly-sensitive NOC registry of embedded spies, tossing both identifiability and staleness into the obstacles dropped on Lorraine.

David Leitch certainly knows how to orchestrate action, though, and Theron's adaptability and willingness to hurl herself into expansive hand-to-hand combat and stunt work empowers the hell out of Atomic Blonde. Less about gunplay than about gritty fisticuffs, the chaos surrounding Lorraine contains a credible briskness and intensity about it, meshing well with the film's amplified visual and sonic attitude. There's a particularly satisfying long-take hallway stairwell sequence, too, one with a shrewd grasp on the layout of a building and just the right amount of missed-shot crossfire to bolster the suspense. There's also a little bit of that obnoxious avoidance of practicality involved while safeguarding the plot's forward motion -- trusting strangers; choosing to strangle someone instead of shooting them; defeated enemies presumed to be dead coming back and causing a significant problem; and so on -- but much of that blurs together with the hypnotic fury unleashed by Lorraine as she safeguards lives and pulls a few backstabs of her own. She's no John Wick, as he'd whip ‘em all without much issue, but she's explosive enough in her own right.

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