I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?
Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.
You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.
And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.
How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.
Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.
There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.
There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.
So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.