Adapted from graphic novel The Coldest City, David Leitch’s John Wick follow up Atomic Blonde might have ditched the name of its source material for its title, but has kept the spirit of the words. Atomic Blonde is freezing cold, from its colour palette to ice queen heroine Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to its deliberate keeping of the audience at an emotional distance. This latter choice keeps Atomic Blonde in second place behind its Keanu Reeves-starring spiritual predecessor, lacking the soul and campy wit of that series, but Leitch’s incredible knack for brutal fight choreography and sleek style always keeps things moving at an entertaining clip.
Peroxide-haired Broughton is an MI6 spy, sent into 1989 Berlin just as the Wall starts falling to retrieve a secret list of all active Cold War field agents from a Stasi defector (Eddie Marsan). It’s a McGuffin, and a well-worn one at that, but it gets the action rolling with suitable urgency. Once Broughton touches down, she’s met by semi-rogue British operative David Percival (James McAvoy), and from there it’s a bruising punch-fest as Broughton takes on what seems like every KGB agent in Germany. Though it starts out well enough, this plot soon descends into supreme silliness, full of twists and betrayals that pointlessly convolute the narrative.
It’s a shame, because Atomic Blonde is at its best when its at its simplest –a bona fide action star beating goons senseless with fists, improvised weapons, and determination. Theron’s action chops are already well proven, but she’s on a different level here. Leitch’s long takes for the fight scenes means that it’s Theron doing most of her own stunts, and she does an exceptional job, most notably in the much-trailed and talked about seamless, no cuts fight down a stairwell. Always outnumbered, she makes it through the exhilarating and wince-worthy combat, but sustains plenty of hideous injuries of her own.
Importantly, Broughton’s not invincible, and every good hit landed on either side visibly changes the fight. A blow to the head will render a combatant dizzied, and after a few minutes, exhaustion starts to take hold. It’s rare that we see any action film protagonist this often bloodied and bruised, let alone a woman, and while these injuries never lose their power to shock, they lend a vital realism to proceedings that grounds the more outlandish elements. They also separate Atomic Blonde from the Bond and Bourne movies it naturally invites comparisons to, the higher age rating ensuring that Broughton makes James and Jason look rather tame.
Theron is immediately iconic in the lead, bolstering her fighting capabilities with a carefully reserved detachment and a series of brilliant costumes. It’s not a role that asks much in the way of emotional range, but it does require a magnetic screen presence, and she delivers in spades. McAvoy is reliably manic as the twitchy Percival, whose extended stay in the Wild West-esque ‘80s Berlin has cost him more than a bit of his professionalism, while Toby Jones and John Goodman do a fine line in exasperation as Broughton’s handlers.
With all its dulled neon lights, unembarrassed sexuality, and teeth-gritting ultraviolence, Atomic Blonde almost feels like what would happen if Nicholas Winding Refn made a spy movie, but the shallow script and daffy story stop it from reaching Refn levels of brilliance. With added depth, or a more knowing sense of its own ridiculousness, the film as a whole could have reached John Wick or Bourne levels, but is instead content to just elevate Theron into that upper echelon. It’s a more than worthy goal to achieve.