If you’ve been watching the previews for Atomic Blonde (and they run before virtually every movie), then you probably have an idea of what the movie is going to be. You can probably lay out the story, sequence the events, and predict how the movie is going to end. Having seen the movie, I think I can say that the movie you have in your head is better than the actual movie. Atomic Blonde does have some great action sequences and some amazing work by Charlize Theron, but ultimately it tries to have too many twists and too much exposition for its own good. I went in hoping for John Wick, and what I got was a little closer to Jason Bourne. Latter day Jason Bourne.
The movie has Charlize Theron playing a spy trying to recover a stolen list of undercover agents in late 80’s Berlin, an era before the United States government realized the danger of writing down the names of all of your spies. James McAvoy (proving again that he needs to stop wasting his time as Professor X) plays her local contact and several other notable actors show up in supporting roles (including best part of The Mummy, Sofia Boutella). Theron’s investigation takes her from location to location, beating up local tough guys and generally looking cool. Her acting along with the 80’s music and Eastern European setting makes the movie pretty fun to watch.
But it’s hard not to flinch at the mistakes the movie makes. Mission Impossible, James Bond and John Wick have all learned an important lesson for action movies: always start the movie with your hero doing some amazing stunts. Here we open with endless expositions and scenery jumps and have to wait a good thirty minutes for a memorable action sequence. The movie also chooses to tell the story in retrospect during an after action interview, which kind of gives away some important plot points and slows down the action for additional exposition. And, if there is one rule I wish more movies could abide by, it’s this: when the bad guy dies, the movie needs to end as soon as possible. We don’t need a series of twists and fake endings once the central conflict is resolved.
To me, the biggest mistake the movie makes is to try to be Jason Bourne in the era of John Wick. I loved the Bourne movies years back with their political intrigue and ambiguous morality punctuated by brilliant action sequences, but that formula has faded now. John Wick changed this with a streamlined, stylish, simple story and with great action sequences that the star largely performs himself. Atomic Blonde looks like John Wick (particularly with Theron doing so much battling herself) but falls back more on the Bourne elements. This is the kind of movie where the villain dies almost incidentally rather than battling the heroine in a knock down, drag out battle. This is the kind of movie where the heroine stares past the camera as a tear streaks down her face. This is the kind of movie that wants to ask “what are we fighting for” when all I want to ask is “when are they fighting again?”
Should you see the movie? Well, yeah, Charlize Theron is awesome, and she’s working her butt off here. She’s convincing in the fighting parts, sexy in the romantic parts, and fun to watch throughout. For my money, the insane single-shot (or near approximation) action sequence is worth the price of admission (it’s up there with some of the best). I just wish she was given free rein to be a true John Wickian hero in a John Wickian world. After all, hers certainly isn’t the real world. Hers is a world where a successful agent is also the most strikingly blonde, memorably beautiful person in every room (how easy would it be to catch her at any border?). Next time, let’s put the moral ambiguity and political complexity aside and just let a true action hero be a true action hero.