Atomic Blonde is not an action movie. I feel obligated to get this out of the way, as the movie has been the victim of a misleading-at-best marketing campaign. Trailers featured Charlize Theron kicking ass front and center, suggesting a John Wick-like exercise in minimal story and maximum thrills. But if anything, the movie’s plot-to-action ratio is story heavy.
We begin with the titular femme fatale, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, arriving in Berlin days before the wall’s collapse to investigate the murder of her lover and colleague, who was last seen with a list of sensitive information. There she meets David Percival (James Macavoy), her hard-partying contact, who helps her pick up the trail. Intrigue, gunfights, and the occasional hookup ensue.
The Cold War Berlin setting is the movie’s most successful element, painting a striking picture of life on both sides of the wall. Helping set the scene is a decadent period soundtrack, featuring several essential 80s hits. The movie is at its best when it picks just the right song for the moment, be it an action scene or one of its quieter beats. The musical choices don’t always work – a torture scene’s hackneyed use of upbeat pop comes to mind – but the soundtrack is absolutely vital to the film.
If I judged movies based on style alone, Atomic Blonde would undoubtedly get high marks for its icy palette and pulsating soundtrack. But then there’s that pesky narrative to deal with, and it’s here where the movie falters. The overarching espionage plot is handled competently enough, but it’s too standard to warrant any real investment. Engaging the audience, then, falls to the actors, who accomplish it ably. Theron is dynamite in the lead, delivering compelling screen presence and impressive martial arts moves. James McAvoy has fun with the role of Broughton’s shady associate, and John Goodman and Toby Jones lend some gravitas to the standard roles of her superiors. The performances don’t quite offset the story’s mediocrity, but they provide a welcome distraction.
Atomic Blonde excels when it embraces the style-over-substance aesthetic, blasting 80s tunes as Theron plows through waves of bad guys. Unfortunately, we have to sit through a rote spy plot in between, where none of the countless twists carry any emotional weight. It’s not a bad film by any means, but it could have been so much better if it were pared down to its essential components.