Atomic Blonde is a film with an awful lot of potential. Set in West, and partly East, Berlin as the Wall falls, it tells the story of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a British secret agent who has been sent by her British handler Gray (Toby Jones) and his American counterpart Kurzfeld (John Goodman) to investigate the death of a British agent, David Percival (James McCoy) and a list of agents, known with a disappointing lack of creativity as The List.
Told as a series of flashbacks during Broughton’s debriefing with Gray and Kurzfeld, Atomic Blonde plays out in comic-book style, fitting given its roots in Antony Johnston’s comic novel The Coldest City. It has a certain visual style, the bleakness of the Berlin winter captured in the bleak colour palette and the cold starkness of the city. Jones is superb as Gray, as one would expect, conveying his distrust of Broughton with little more than the slightest curl of a lip; Goodman brings his usual bombast and weight to the screen to its usual great effect. McAvoy is by turns slippery, slimy and manic as Percival, the agent who’s been in Berlin so long the city has become part of him, his cheeky-chappie turn managing to stay just the right side of engaging, while Eddie Marsan as Spyglass, a German contact, has just the right amount of haunted about him, and James Faulkner, last seen as the reptilian Randyll Tarley in Game Of Thrones, is similarly nasty, in a perhaps more understated way, as C, the British boss who listens in to Broughton’s debrief and takes slightly more interest than is necessary in her tryst with French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella, stepping up from her disappointing effort in The Mummy).
The action in Atomic Blonde is, in places, quite dizzying, the violence remarkably choreographed and directed. One scene in particular stands out in which Broughton fights off half a dozen men armed to varying degrees in a quite stunningly violent and ugly fight in a stairwell, a spectacular of blood and bone-crunching that appears — you can, to be fair, if you pay close attention, see where the joins must be — to be shot in a single take. It’s a very impressive production, backed by a fantastic soundtrack that opens with New Order’s Blue Monday, and then switches to David Bowie’s Cat People before the opening titles have run. Nena’s 99 Luftballons, in German, natch, features, as does an intriguing attempt to rehabilitate A Flock Of Seagulls’ And I Ran.
So why, then, does the film not quite manage to work? Much of the blame, sadly, falls at the feet of Charlize Theron. It’s a good year for action films with strong female leads, but she hasn’t quite grasped that “strong” is not entirely synonymous with “monotonous and monosyllabic.” For every tart, sharp aside — “I’m not speaking German tonight” is delivered with a glorious archness — there’s a swathe of gruff, emotionless, cold gruffness that simply doesn’t work. Yes, she’s a hard, cold killing machine, and yes, James Bond films have always been better when they have the coldness of Daniel Craig instead of the flippancy of Roger Moore, but Theron’s Broughton is disappointingly one-dimensional. She’s strangely inconsistent, too — while she is fond of taking baths in ice-water, she shivers hopelessly when she’s pulled out of a river. And, sad to say, when you’re focussing on details like that, you’re not paying attention to the story, which moves very slowly for the first hour and a few, and then in the last act suddenly drops a gear and moves ahead apace, the twists, some at least of which you’ll have seen coming from a fair distance, coming more and more quickly.
It’s a shame, then, because there is the making of a very interesting film in Atomic Blonde, and Charlize Theron is capable of much better than she delivers.