It’s no secret that there simply aren’t enough female-led films made. The fact that this year’s Wonder Woman was so heralded in the industry not only shines a light of hope but also illustrates how much the male-dominated narratives of Hollywood still exist. It’s telling that Marvel have still not attempted a female-led superhero movie (although Captain Marvel is on the way).
So a film like Atomic Blonde, on paper, is a refreshing steer towards change. An out-and-out action film with a female lead who can kick ass just as hard as her male counterparts. Throw into the mix that it stars one of Hollywood’s genuine powerhouse leading ladies in the form of Charlize Theron and Atomic Blonde has genuine potential.
The Cold War is coming to a close, the Berlin Wall is about to come down but the spies from The East and The West are not going to let this battle ground go without stealing a few secrets. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is sent to find out who killed one of her colleagues who was in possession of a list containing the names of countless spies. Meeting up with fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) the pair must navigate the backstabbing world of the Cold War and track down the man who knows every name on the list in order to get him back to The West before The Wall collapses.
Atomic Blonde is your traditional action thriller. It feels a lot like Brian DePalma’s first Mission Impossible, there’s action but there’s also a genuine conspiracy at its core. When the action comes it’s satisfying without being remarkable. Directed by John Wick co-director David Leitch the action sequences are hugely satisfying, finding ways of being viscerally crunching while balletically choreographed.
Furthermore, Leitch brings with him from John Wick a gorgeous visual style that is somewhere between noirish and Michael Mann levels of neon blues that make the film pop from the get-go. All aided by a perfectly selected ‘80s pop soundtrack.
Unfortunately, it is in the thriller stakes, narrative and tone that Atomic Blonde feels more like a party popper than anything resembling the bomb the title hints at. The film severely lacks any genuine tension due to the fact that the entire film is being narrated by Theron’s character after the fact, so, surprise, surprise, she’s going to make it out of that situation where she’s cornered by a countless amount of evil henchmen. It’s a voiceover device that serves no purpose other than to have Theron making snide remarks to her superiors.
And like John Wick the film feels like it has missed an opportunity. At first look you think those playful trailers, that amazing soundtrack, the intentionally satirical fonts on the poster hint at something more than just another action movie that could star Liam Neeson or Jason Statham. You think, you hope, that perhaps this film might just be to action films what Scream was to horror films. Alas, it isn’t. It’s just another action film.
But more than anything what makes Atomic Blonde fall flat is Theron’s character. Why cast such a star, one who can easily carry an interesting, deep and fascinating action character as seen in Mad Max Fury Road only to have her act as the coldest of fish this side of the supermarket freezer aisle. There’s nothing to invest in other than he being supercool. There has to be something more. Take, for example, Ryan Gosling‘s Driver in Drive. Yes, he’s stoic, struts around like he doesn’t give damn, but he’s also a big old softie at heart as seen in his interaction with Carey Mulligan and her onscreen son. The most we get from Theron is a hint at a former relationship with her felled colleague and a gay relationship with a fellow spy which seems to add little but titillation. All that good work of creating an action film with a female protagonist is undone by refusing to do anything but tick a list of cliches.
A film with huge potential that could have been an atomic blast but is let down by refusing to do anything but conform. Atomic Blonde fizzles out when it should pop.