It is easy to understand why director David Leitch and the studio boffins funding the project would want a performer with the talents and profile of Charlize Theron to headline this production, but what is difficult to comprehend is why the Oscar-winning actress would want to be a part of it. There is nothing on show here that is remotely original and the whole piece reeks of voyeurism and a distinct lack of imagination. The Germans and the Russians are the bad guys (of course), while the British and American agencies supposedly working together are undermining each other at every opportunity. Sure, Atomic Blonde may indeed pass the Bechdel Test but, as is so often the case, the female characters are sexualised in ways that are unnecessary in the advancement of the story and certainly more so than any of the male characters.
Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI6 agent sent to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a list that reveals the identities of intelligence operatives. Often, the mission at hand seems to be of minor consequence to Leitch who, rather than advancing the narrative in a way that makes any sense, prefers numerous leering shots of Theron in various states of undress. Teaming up with local agent David Percival (James McAvoy), Lorraine proceeds to kill, maim and mangle myriad bad guys in a series of action sequences that are executed well enough, which is perhaps to be expected given Leitch’s background as a stunt performer. However, with the exception of one scene where Lorraine throws herself off a balcony with a hose anchored by a hapless baddy she had lassoed earlier, Atomic Blonde doesn’t bring anything new to the genre and setting the action amidst the fall of the Berlin Wall seems a somewhat cynical attempt to lend credibility to the film as a spy thriller.
The whole piece is presented as though Leitch has simply run through a checklist of action movie tropes, making sure to include each one before shoehorning a somewhat convoluted story in between the action scenes. The film is based on a graphic novel titled The Coldest City and being unfamiliar with the source text, it is difficult to know how much liberty Leitch and writer Kurt Johnstad have taken in adapting it for the big screen. The talents of John Goodman and Toby Jones are wasted as the respective representatives of the American and British spy agencies whose interrogation of Lorraine provides the narrative framework and while Eddie Marsan also features, it is McAvoy who seems to be the only one having any fun as the cocky, compromised Percival, a figure whose loyalties seem to fluctuate depending on what is in his, rather than his country’s, best interests. Algerian actress Sophie Boutella (Star Trek Beyond, The Mummy) features as a French operative whose only real purpose seems to be in providing further titillation for the male audience to whom the film is targeted; the lesbian sex scene adding nothing by way of narrative or character development.
With an Academy Award for her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, one can only assume that money is the motivation for Theron (and the rest of the cast for that matter) to take on this project. Sure there are moments of grim intensity, but the story is more convoluted than it needs to be and yet the dialogue is often clichéd and corny. Theron is suitably bad-ass in the lead role, but the script doesn‘t give her much to work with. In fact, Lorraine doesn’t really engage in too much espionage work at all, showing up at various locations impeccably dressed and dutifully dispatching anybody who gets in her way. The soundtrack is great, featuring the likes of David Bowie, New Order, ‘Til Tuesday, Nena and George Michael, but cool tunes cannot hide the fact that Atomic Blonde fails to distinguish itself from the innumerable other films that have covered the same territory.