As an exercise in style over substance, Atomic Blonde is a qualified success. If you’re looking for character development or intricate plotting, however, look elsewhere. Blonde is a fun, if somewhat frivolous action flick with a strong female lead whose gender doesn’t play like a contrived afterthought, so it scores points if only on the basis of its relative originality. There’s no real depth to be found here, and the proceedings are largely rooted in a misguided sense of Cold War-era nostalgia, but if you can get past the vacuousness, there’s a passably entertaining movie underneath all the mindless flash and sparkle.
Director David Leitch has tried to translate the action prowess he displayed at the helm of the John Wick movies to something that purports to be a gender-swapped James Bond film but plays more like cut-rate John le Carré. Blonde flounders when it tries to get into the plot convolutions of its espionage intrigue, but its dynamic action sequences go a long way toward making up for its narrative deficiencies. Its late ’80s aesthetic is occasionally inconsistent, and the predominantly New Wave soundtrack may prove more appealing for some than it did for me — though I suspect anyone would concede that Tarantino made far better use of David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” in Inglourious Basterds.
Based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City (an infinitely better title than Atomic Blonde), the film follows Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 asset tasked with retrieving a pretty standard MacGuffin in Berlin as the wall is about to come down. What follows amounts to little more than a compendium of spy movie clichés, but who can really complain when Theron kicks so much ass — and looks so good doing it?
If Leitch is more than up to the task of managing intricate fight choreography and stunt-laden set pieces, he’s undermined at practically every turn by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad — who clearly hasn’t learned much since the last time he adapted a graphic novel with Zac Snyder’s 300. But despite the lack of a solid script, it’s not the plot twists but the body count that represents Blonde’s raison d’être — a protracted and brutal second-act fight sequence staged almost entirely in a stairwell is worth the price of admission in and of itself.
The supporting cast is stellar — John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and James McAvoy are all excellent — but this is Theron’s show, and she’s in top form. It’s by no means a perfect film, but the fact that women are finally being given the opportunity to carry big-budget summer action spectacles like this one is more than enough justification for Blonde’s existence in my book. Is it high art? Hell no. But if you’re in the market for a fast-paced and well-crafted piece of popcorn moviemaking, you could do far worse than Atomic Blonde. Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity. Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.