It would be reductive to refer to Atomic Blonde as simply a “Female James Bond.” The film is far more rough-and-tumble than that, and also more individualistic: a slam-bang shot of transgressive verve with an icy cool chaser. Frankly, it serves as a rebuke of the Bond model’s square-jawed stuffiness, not merely transplanting a woman into the central role but stripping away all pretense of standard regalia. No martinis necessary – we just skip straight to vodka shots. The verbal interplay is more blunt than pithy. There’s plenty of exploitation, to be sure, but it isn’t disguised as some sort of classy velvet-robed fantasy. It’s a simple and raw exchange of lust, dingy in its setting and lit only by neon pink ambience, indulging in unapologetic gaudiness. If anything, this film isn’t chasing after Bond so much as kicking him in the balls.
As such, it’s perversely engaging, which is kind of amazing when you consider just how hard it works to erect a wall between itself and the audience. By design, Atomic Blonde is a punk-rock “eff you” to everything in its wake, including its viewers, who have the option to either reject the notion on principle or accept it and enjoy the ride. Either way, the film offers no apologies, which fuses it uniquely with its central anti-hero, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), as cynical and fatalistic an undercover agent as you’re likely to ever witness on screen. She exudes ice and fire simultaneously, a deliberately uneasy collision between rage and aloofness. It’s a testament to the character’s power – and to Theron’s, who feels like not just the perfect choice, but the only choice for this role – that the film organizes itself as an extension of Lorraine. Its design pits grayed-out sepia against a backdrop of kitschy neon. Its screenplay operates with a simmering temper, playing a detached spy game until it boils over in raw action. All of the above is set to a soundtrack of late-‘80s hipster pop, a kind of iconoclastic bombast befitting this fanged joy ride.
Lorraine is an MI6 agent summoned to Cold War-era Berlin for a dual mission: investigating the death of a former partner, and recovering “The List,” a dossier containing the identities of double agents. Simple enough premise, though one that’s made magnificently convoluted by the compounding of tertiary characters that are primarily intended as vessels to be played by some audience favorites, from James McAvoy as a devil-may-care MI6 Berlin station chief, to John Goodman and Toby Jones as counterpart CIA and MI6 operatives, to Eddie Marsan as a German defector who has memorized every name on The List. It’s all intriguing from moment-to-moment, though only in a star-power, rock-em-sock-em spy game sort of way. It feels like every key plot point in the film could collapse at any moment upon closer inspection, but it doesn’t matter as much when the film has so much fun with its hard-boiled character dynamics and reveals of reveals of reveals.
David Leitch, who co-directed the original John Wick, directs Atomic Blonde with a similar sense of blunt-force urgency. Every punch feels galvanized, every crash supercharged. The combat is choreographed but feels deliberately messy. Its most bravura sequence is an extended, simulated single take that tracks a relentless fight into an abandoned building, up a staircase, in and out of multiple rooms, back down the staircase, out of the building and into a car chase. It’s designed as a purposeful mess; like Wick, it prefers a brawl to a ballet. Also similar to Wick, Atomic Blonde cares little about throwaway notions of coherence and believability; its fuel is vodka and attitude, and that’s more than enough to blow James Bond out of his designer suit.