Set around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Atomic Blonde tells a traditional spy plot but wraps it in excessive visual flourish to mask the fact that at its core the characters and events taking place are relatively uninteresting. However, the sheer beauty of the cinematography and fight choreography still makes it stand out against the crowd of generic action blockbusters.
Laid out in flashback format, the narrative of Atomic Blonde can be strangely complicated at times as plot points are rushed by to give time for beautiful ‘trailer’ shots. While these images are striking, streaks of neon and colours that pop, they can often feel forced and crammed in along with many nostalgic songs of the time period to capture the retro hipster aesthetic popular in recent films. This aspect effects the quality of many scenes; otherwise compelling action and dialogue ends up leaving a sour taste in your mouth. It is a shame as director David Leitch still shows talent and potential with one extended fight sequence that closes the second act; raw and visceral while made to look like one continuous shot, if the rest of the film had been treated with the same care and restraint in the visuals and music it could have been amazing. Compared by many to John Wick, there are definitely some visual and thematic similarities but what makes Wick brilliant is its more subdued humour and style; a fact Leitch seems to have overlooked.
Sharing elements of a serious spy thriller and a quirky action comedy, Atomic Blonde often threatens to collapse over itself trying to be intense and fun at the same time, though it sometimes does manage to balance this fine line, many of the action and dramatic sequences are squandered due to the constant blaring soundtrack and desire to be cool and alternative. A great cast, led by Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, add much needed legitimacy to potentially one dimensional characters; the constant plot shifts making it difficult to identify with them – this is fitting for a film about cold hearted spies but still ruins any emotional investment. It is a serious problem that the only reason we are compelled by our protagonists is the charisma and energy brought by the actors themselves and not the way their characters are written.
Atomic Blonde is beautiful but bland; its quirky personality and visuals overwhelming an otherwise by the numbers plot. A stellar action set piece, strong cast and some pretty shots aren’t enough to make this more than just ok.