John Wick goes John le Carré in a distaff 007 Euro-spy adventure that provides Charlize Theron with a badass, franchise-friendly heroine to call her own.
Based on the British graphic novel The Coldest City and directed by ex-stuntman David Leitch, who helmed some second unit action on John Wick, and indeed left John Wick Chapter 2 for this solo credit, Atomic Blonde is deliriously entertaining in the slick mano-a-mano feats and blazing gunplay departments. It’s when the story rears its dodgy head that things go off the rails and rapidly descend into the don’t-really-care nether regions.
It’s Berlin, 1989. East/West relationships are at breaking point and, on the eve of the wall coming down, the city is loaded with secret government operatives of all nationalities looking for a missing list of double agents. One of those is MI6 superspy Lorraine Broughton (Theron) who is tasked with investigating the murder of a fellow agent, finding the perilous list and exposing a double agent traitor codenamed Satchel. Her only contact is the gone-native David Percival (James McAvoy), who immediately proves untrustworthy as he puts her in clear and present danger the moment she touches down at the airport.
Complicating matters – well, only very slightly – are the ex-Stasi defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who has committed the entire wanted list to memory, and undercover French fancy Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets too lipstick-lesbian close to Lorraine (the only major narrative change from the original graphic novel).
All the thrilling events are told in flashback by a battered and bruised Lorraine under closed-room interrogation by Eric Gray (Toby Jones), her superior officer, and Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), a suspicious-looking CIA agent, and ends with her disclosure of who Satchel really is. Or does it?
Atomic Blonde is complete style over substance at every twist and turn, but what fabulously edgy and electric style. The look is cool and comic-book-panel calculated, the swiftly paced action is brutal and kinetic and the killer 1980s soundtrack is a Deutschland Disco delight. You’ll be expecting Nena’s 99 Luftballons to turn up, but perhaps not George Michael’s Father Figure or David Bowie’s Putting Out The Fire. Missing entirely is the most obvious choice though, Atomic by Blondie!
Through it all, no-nonsense Theron is a magnetic force of nature whether stabbing an adversary’s jugular with her red stiletto heel or battling thugs in front of a cinema screen showing projected images from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which act as the perfect violence versus philosophy counterpoint. When Leith (who is currently directing Deadpool 2) gets those risky design choices right, he nails the action sequences, which are far more compelling than the wraparound dramatics.
True, Theron’s English accent is perhaps a tad too studied and it often feels she’s still on the set of her J’Adore perfume commercials. But when the Fast & Furious 8 star moves into combat mode, her honed rage is something else – especially in the main breathtaking set-piece where she battles KGB agents down a stairway in one seemingly unbroken take, clearly taking a leaf out of the Korean Oldboy book. You can literally feel her depleting energy levels and excruciating pain.
It must be said that McAvoy makes little impression and Jones, Goodman and shady watchmaker Til Schweiger do nothing more than sit behind desks. It’s very much a case of borrowing ideas from Bond and Bourne, lighting the incandescent Theron touchpaper and standing back in amazement.
At its worst, Atomic Blonde is disposable popcorn fluff; at best it’s a sexy gut-punch of grisly gunfire and A-list gorgeousness, one that will make you wish for secret agent Lorraine Broughton’s rapid return in something a bit more substantial.
Atomic Blonde is released in cinemas on Wednesday 9 August
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news