A recurring image in Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch’s adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City, involves superimpositions of news broadcasts about the collapsing communist regime in East Germany over images of the spies who continue to operate in Berlin as if trying to get their last bit of wetwork in before all the fun stops. These moments are testaments to the futility of the violence depicted throughout, a commentary bluntly made late in the film as embedded Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) surveys numerous double-crosses and directly faces the camera to ask: “Who won, and what was the fucking game anyway?”
Yet the most salient bit of self-criticism comes shortly thereafter, when an MTV News report shifts topics from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the subject of sampling and whether it’s art or plagiarism. This throwaway joke neatly summarizes a film predicated on the wholesale exploitation of cliché—a film that often loses sight of its own action to glibly pay homage to other works.
The most obvious reference point here is John Wick, with its heavily color-coded images and coldly efficient protagonist. Where Keanu Reeves offered a departure from his affably heroic persona to play Wick, Charlize Theron is in her wheelhouse as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent who’s sent to Berlin to retrieve a list containing the identities of various spies before it can fall into K.G.B. hands. Introduced emerging from an ice-filled bathtub as she numbs a plethora of cuts and bruises, sparing a few cubes to throw into a glass of vodka, Lorraine cuts a harsh profile that’s exacerbated by Theron’s impassive body language and purposefully expressionless face. In combat, the character is less fluid than Wick but possibly more resourceful, fighting for survival and thus relying on cunning fury as much as honed professionalism.
Where John Wick took its own clichés and distilled them to their essences, however, Atomic Blonde opts for mere pile-on. Framing the story around a later debriefing from a wounded Lorraine that casts most of the action as flashback, the film constantly comments on itself in a manner similar to the films of Guy Ritchie, whose intricately plotted yet derivatively pointless capers lay the blueprint for the spy games on display here.
The bulk of this self-aware smarm is actualized through David, whose motor-mouthed monologues revel in the dangers of the agent’s life even as they cynically summarize the worthlessness of the enterprise. With Lorraine also dispatched to Berlin to track down a mole, David’s blasé attitude and frequently inappropriate behavior mark him as the likeliest suspect, though of course any thriller that seemingly gives away its game so quickly is bound to be trotting out its reddest herring. But given that the film only has about four significant roles, one being the comically evil Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Møller), the inevitable bait-and-switch recalls the worst hackery of Dan Brown, who similarly went to great lengths to set up twists that were easily guessed by default of having almost no choices to guess between.
The tediously forestalled twists suck away time from what should be the film’s focus—its action—and leaves only two scenes worthy of celebration. In the first, Lorraine ducks K.G.B. agents by slipping into a screening of Stalker, which leads to some fitfully gorgeous shots of nasty close-quarters combat set against images from the Andrei Tarkovsky film’s transcendent climax. The other is a magnificent sequence involving a brutal fight between Lorraine and a host of Russian and East German agents out to kill a defecting Stasi officer, Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), under her escort. Gunshots make nasty, quick work of a few bad guys, but for the most part the scene unfurls in a desperate melee, with increasingly fatigued and blood-soaked figures throwing strikes that forego flash for utility, bursting muscle and slashing veins with abandon. Fighting in and out of hallways and apartments, anything is a weapon, with lamps and hot plates becoming as decisive to the flow of the battle as handguns. It’s a bravura sequence in a film utterly lacking them elsewhere, and a frustrating glimpse at what might have been had the unnecessary entanglements been pruned to shift focus where it belonged.