I really wanted to like this movie. A slick, stylish, and aggressive action/spy movie? That’s all I needed to hear. Atomic Blonde looked like something different, something new. Charlize Theron crushes as a Cold War super spy. The setting, Berlin in late 1989 with the wall on the brink of coming down, is clever and creates a baseline level of tension. I wanted to really like this movie, but too much feels familiar. It’s not even familiarity, per se, that’s the problem. What’s great and novel about this movie gets buried under scenes that could be seamlessly cut into other spy movies. Atomic Blonde too often strays from a cohesive visual language, and offers a plot that’s somehow familiar and confusing. Yet, despite its shortcomings, it’s not all bad. I want to like this movie and, having seen it, I want to dislike it. It turns out I’m stuck somewhere in between.
With this performance as MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton, Charlize Theron ought to throw fuel on the fire for talk of casting a female as the next James Bond. Theron drives this movie and does so with an unambiguous female flair. This isn’t a spy movie that happens to have a female in the lead role; this is a movie about a badass spy who is female through and through. In a number of ways, Atomic Blondeplays like a Bond movie, which is unfortunate because even Bond movies have a hard time not treading on well covered ground. The recurrent familiarity calls to mind other spy movies such that what’s novel here gets lost. Playing opposite Theron, James McAvoy holds his own nicely as a sleazy spy.
For a movie that would have us believe it’s over-the-top, Atomic Blonde shows inexplicable restraint. This film pulls back every time it gets close to going big, creating an odd swing between a look all its own and looking like a million other spy movies. Instead of fulfilling this promise of being larger than life, director David Leitch leans on his stunt background to deliver sprawling fight scenes that prove sometimes less is more. Drawn-out fights also can undermine the protagonist’s potency. If fights tend to be long and brutal, at a certain point you start to wonder if the character maybe isn’t cut out for fighting. Have you ever seen a baseball player throw a punch in anger? They’re embarrassingly bad at it. Comparing a comic book spy movie and real life is ridiculous, I get it.
There are moments in this film, the exact details of which I will not share here, that feel like an attempt at going over-the-top, that simply don’t. Atomic Blonde might have been shocking ten years ago, but culture has shifted dramatically since then. Films in recent years have already jolted audiences with similar scenes. 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up starring Clive Owen promised big, ridiculous action and delivered. Blonde made the promise, but doesn’t meet the bar for absurd action. Not every movie needs to cover new ground, but any movie that doesn’t better be visually stunning from the first frame to the last. This movie has its moments, but isn’t nearly as dangerous as it wants to be, isn’t as stunning as it wants to be, but isn’t entirely bad. Still, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.