With the incredible success of the stylish actioner “John Wick,” it’s hardly surprising to find that similar projects would be fast-tracked to the top of the list. In this sense, Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel “The Coldest City” seemed ripe for the picking. After all, it has a spy going on a top secret mission in a very volatile location and time period, and, of course, she faces death at practically every turn. Bring along director David Leitch (who happened to be an uncredited co-director on “John Wick”) and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (one of the co-writers of “300”), and you appear to have all of the necessary ingredients to make a film that’ll have just as much impact as the one that it aspires to be, but will all of this be enough, or will “Atomic Blonde” (I suppose they thought this was a snappier title) be just another flick overloaded with action?
The film follows MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who is being debriefed by her boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA liaison (John Goodman) about her recent mission in 1989 Berlin. She was sent there to make contact with another agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), in an attempt to locate a list of agents that could be extremely dangerous if it should fall into the wrong hands. On top of that, the list also contains the name of a double agent that her superiors want exposed. An agent has already been killed when trying to smuggle the list out of Berlin, and another contact has gone missing, leaving all sides trying to get ahold of the top secret document. It’s not long before her enemies know that Lorraine is in the city looking for the list, leading to confrontations around just about every corner, but when she discovers that her last hope for completing the mission lies in another agent who has committed the list to memory, she has little choice but to make one last daring attempt to finish what she started.
If that plot seems a little muddled to you, that’s probably because it is. “Atomic Blonde” wants to tell this tense, engaging, and exciting spy tale, but when it comes to the narrative itself, it gets a little lost along the way. To be more specific, the second act of the film is where it faces the most trouble. The setup to the story is fine, as is the conclusion, but the middle portion practically shuts the story down, causing the characters to come to a standstill while everyone is trying to find the list and Lorraine is trying to discover who she can trust.
It was a rather odd choice for Johnstad to take a film like this and then almost put the audience to sleep in the middle, but if we’re being honest, the plot is hardly the reason anyone is going to see this movie. If they’ve seen the trailer, they’ve come strictly for the insane action that was promised, the craziness that they’ve already seen in Leitch’s previous actioner effort. If there’s one thing that the plot does do well, it’s acting as a template for the fantastic action sequences that are strewn throughout the first and third acts, including one remarkable sequence near the end of the film that was made to appear as one continuous sequence lasting for about 15 minutes. In fact, this sequence was more than likely strategically placed to jostle the audience awake from the lethargic effects of the second act.
What’s more is that, not only are the action scenes very well shot and choreographed, they also manage to infuse a level of dark humor into them. Not to go into too much detail, but there are specific little touches that will give certain viewers a good laugh, touches that include going too far, desperate tactics, questionable methods, and just outright hilarious use of whatever happens to be around. There’s so much more that goes into a fight sequence than some realize, so when a filmmaker, screenwriter, and choreographer are able to make sequences like this that are thrilling, funny, and just plain entertaining, it really is a marvel.
Taking the good with the bad, “Atomic Blonde” balances out to a decent entertainment. If you go into it just looking to have fun and don’t try to examine the muddled plot too much, then you’ll probably have a good time. It’s one that’ll cause you to be really skeptical in the middle, but it comes back strong for an insane finish that’ll likely leave a smile on your face. This was a film that was never meant to be taken seriously, but rather one that was meant to delight you with its crazy action, all set to one of the greatest soundtracks of recent memory (“99 Red Balloons,” “London Calling,” “Der Kommissar” “Major Tom,” just to name a few of the songs). To this end, it succeeds just enough to overcome its plotting flaws and to make for an ultimately fun experience. 3/4 stars.