After the surprise success of John Wick, the two directors split off to pursue separate projects. Chad Stahelski stayed on board and directed John Wick: Chapter 2, but his partner David Leitch decided to make something entirely different. Instead of a film about a grizzled hitman featuring a very famous actor doing his own stunts that blow us all away, Leitch wanted to make a film about a glamorous secret agent featuring a very famous actress doing her own stunts that blow us all away. These are worlds apart.
I’m being a little snide because all of the advertisement that I saw heavily mentioned phrases like “the new female John Wick”, which I thought was pretty silly before I realized that the director was a part of both films. After seeing the film, it totally makes sense.
Atomic Blonde doesn’t really cover any new ground as an espionage thriller, so I won’t spend too much time on the plot. Let’s not kid ourselves, no one went to see Atomic Blonde for the plot as their primary interest.
HERE ARE PLOT THINGS, SKIP AHEAD IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THEM
Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989 just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. An MI6 agent named James Gasciogne is killed by a KGB agent for having a special list that contains identities and dossiers on countless secret agents. The List is taken and the KGB man goes into hiding.
Ten days later, an agent named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is brought in for questioning on the events that have previously occurred. This is the framing device for the rest of the film.
Lorraine is sent to Berlin to recover the List and take out a double agent known only as Satchel. Upon landing, she is immediately attacked by a group of KGB agents. She meets her Berlin contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), who explains that the information came from a fleeing Stasi agent codenamed Spyglass, who they have to escort across the border. Lorraine goes to investigate the apartment that James stayed in and is attacked yet again. David was the only person who knew where she was going, so she begins to suspect him. She also encounters Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a young French agent who engages in a physical (and partially emotional) relationship with her.
The KGB man who stole the List reveals that he plans to sell it to the highest bidder. David finds out about this and kills the man, bringing the List to a billionaire KGB associate named Bremovych, which Delphine witnesses and photographs. A plan is devised to sneak Spyglass across the border using a parade of sorts, but David shoots him without anyone noticing. Lorraine tries to save Spyglass, but they are attacked by several men in a building and are chased via car. Their car falls into a river and he isn’t able to escape.
Lorraine starts to piece together the plot, but not quickly enough. David tracks down Delphine and kills her in her apartment in order to cover up her tracks. When Lorraine arrives, she finds photos of David meeting with Bremovych. She finds David and kills him, taking the List with her.
Back in the interrogation room, Lorraine supplies photos and altered audio recordings to prove to her superiors that David was Satchel all along. Shortly after, she is seen in a hotel room with none other than Bremovych, revealing that she was actually Satchel from the start. He admits to knowing that she was working both sides and then we hear her British start to fall away. She kills Bremovych and his henchmen before returning to the CIA as she was secretly a triple agent.
THE PLOT TALK IS ALL DONE NOW
It’s still fairly early, so I don’t want to be permanently held down to this, but my initial thought is that I like Atomic Blonde more than I like John Wick. This isn’t just because I’d rather spend a film with Charlize Theron than with Keanu Reeves, though that is a pretty big part of it. Most of the praise on John Wick comes to the action and the realistic gunplay, but Atomic Blonde has the same level of gunplay along with even better fight scenes. The scene in James’ apartment (the one with the garden hose) that features George Michael’s “Father Figure” as the soundtrack is terrific, but everyone is going to remember the stairwell fight scene as the true highlight. As Lorraine and Spyglass enter a building, there aren’t any more edits. There is elevator movement, several connected stair fights, battles in a few different rooms, walking down to a car, a forward car chase AND a backward car chase. This is all in one take and it is one of the best action sequences of the 21st century thus far.
The cinematography also improves upon what John Wick started. There’s still a fair amount neon lighting throughout, but when you put that neon onto a frame of Charlize it suddenly becomes a work of art that could hang in any museum. She’s obviously more than just a beautiful woman, as she has proven time and time again that she is one of the most talented actresses working today. Mad Max: Fury Road established her action chops, and Atomic Blonde (while not being a better film) improves upon that performance.
Beyond the lead performance, there is a wealth of talent. James McAvoy can do literally anything at this point, and he’s usually one of (if not THE) best thing about every film he’s in. Sofia Boutella shows the most range I’ve seen her give thus far, stretching to show both strength and vulnerability simultaneously as the naïve spy. The cast also features the likes of Toby Jones, John Goodman, and Eddie Marsan, who are all great actors.
There is a potentially problematic issue that should at least be mentioned. As a heterosexual male, I don’t feel like I should be the voice for lesbian portrayals in film, but I just want to briefly address something. Historically speaking, lesbian film characters are often tragic and frequently don’t live all the way through the film. The fact that the one lesbian character in the film (Theron’s character is shown to be bisexual) meets an untimely fate while also scantily clad on her bed doesn’t seem like the best possibility, and I’m not exactly sure how to discuss it, but it does happen and should be thought about.
Director David Leitch will be stepping into Deadpool 2 after this. While that isn’t all that different from his previous work, it’s certainly more interesting than Chad Stahelski prepping John Wick: Chapter 3. If their second outings are any indication of their separate career paths, I’ll side with Leitch as the man to watch between the two.
Atomic Blonde: 7/10
I’m sorry that it’s another 7, but most of the films that I see live in a world of “good but not great”, and that is the best place for them.