You know what’s a great feeling at a festival: Knowing nothing about a movie and maybe not even being that interested and then suddenly needing to see it. That was the case for me with Atomic Blonde since even just reading the description slightly I didn’t think I was interested until the trailer showed up a few days before the premier. Seeing a crazy action movie with Charlize Theron and directed by David Leitch who co-directed John Wick had me waiting in line 2 hours during SXSW to see this one and to be able to give you this review now.
One thing the trailer didn’t prepare me for is that this is a movie set in the 1980’s in Berlin just a bit before the Berlin Wall had fallen and when the Cold War was in full swing. Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent dispatched to Berlin to recover essentially a NOC List for all Allied spies that was stolen from an ex-lover of hers. With the help of David Percival (James McAvoy) the Berlin station chief who has “gone local” and looks and acts a bit like a skinhead burnout, she has to find this list as well as uncover the identity of double agent. The story is being told by Lorraine to an MI6 inquisition into what actually occurred helping frame the story.
The film is gorgeously stylized and dripping with 1980s nostalgia and Cold War thriller energy. From the very beginning we get a very strong sense of style from stylish location cards that also give a great sense of place. The film also easily lets you get a feel for a character in just a short scene as they ooze personality, especially the icy Lorraine (literally icy from the start as she emerges from an ice bath then uses said ice for her glass of Stoli on the Rocks) who we follow throughout. Mixed with that we then have the absurdly frenetic action that easily calls to mind, as best comparison, John Wick, and also challenges it for title of best action movie of the decade, or at least best Western action movie. It isn’t just stylized action but rather beautifully done all out brutality, to the point that in a few cases you ask how they could possibly still be going and the actors themselves are clearly barely able to keep standing too. All this is artfully scored with 80’s music that will hit home for those nostalgic for that time but also fit the scenes it is chosen for.
Outside of Leitch’s skillful direction of action and cinematography the film also has great characters. Theron is the heart and soul of this movie as Lorraine and sells it throughout. She’s icy and dangerous but also shows moments of weakness where she’s haunted by the past or protective of someone needing her where she truly opens up and proves her humanity despite being and skilled weapon of the British government. The character of Percival may be one of McAvoy’s best and likely the most screwed up since Filth. He is certainly burning out but that doesn’t make him not also a skilled agent that earned his role as Station Chief and his cunning and skills play off Lorraine well. The film also has Sofia Boutella, who I think has only gotten better and better since Kingsman, as a French agent and Roland Møller as the head of the KGB presence in Berlin. Lastly we have those questioning Lorraine, primarily Toby Jones as her commanding officer Gray, James Fulkner as C the head of the division, and John Goodman as the CIA liaison that was tied to the whole Berlin affair. It would take too long to give everyone their due but truthfully the cast really builds up the story beautifully.
I don’t give a 5 out of 5 lightly, especially not for an action movie when we have seen many good ones recently. However, I think Atomic Blonde more than earned it with action as solid as John Wick, if not at times better, a great sense of place and time with great characters and also a wonderfully twisty spy thriller plot. It hit all my pleasure zones and it hit them well without really missing a beat and it may just beat John Wick if not give him a run for his money with the best badass Female character we could ask for.