David Leitch, the stuntman who earned his stripes by co-directing the surprise hit “John Wick,” follows up with his first solo feature, and—surprise!—it turns out to be very much like a distaff version of that movie. Based as it is on a graphic novel (Antony Johnston’s “The Coldest City,” adapted by Kurt Johnstad), there are nevertheless differences. It’s a period piece, set in the time immediately preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the heroine is a working British agent rather than a retired hit-man. In terms of the complexity and mindlessness of the action, as well as the cynicism at its core, however, the template is much the same.
Charlize Theron, looking suitably statuesque and determined, is Lorraine Broughton, who is introduced soothing her bruises with an ice bath—and chilled vodka—before being interrogated by her MI6 boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA bigwig Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) about her recent, none too successful, mission in Berlin. In what’s essentially an extended flashback punctuated by returns to her brusque testimony, we’re shown how that mission went down.
Lorraine had been tasked by Gray and the MI6 chief (James Faulkner) with going to the still-divided German city to recover the body of fellow agent James Gasclogne (Sam Hargrave), with whom she’d been secretly involved; he was murdered by an unknown assailant. Her real purpose, however, was to retrieve a list of agents that Casclogne had acquired from a Stasi operative codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). If that list fell into the wrong hands, it could lead to their elimination. As it happens, it was apparently being shopped around—encased in a wristwatch—by the Russian assassin through the agency of a mysterious fellow called The Watchmaker (Til Schweiger). It is also being sought by a Commie bigwig named Bremovych (Roland Moeller) and his band of brutal thugs, along with the East German police.
To aid in the mission, Lorraine is connected with MI6’s Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who has, in the words of one agency powerbroker, “gone feral.” He puts her onto Spyglass, who has memorized the list, and so is as valuable as the watch and its contents and must be smuggled out to the West. Also involved in the increasingly crowded cast of characters are a French operative named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) and one of Percival’s contacts named Merkel (Bill Skarsgaard), who apparently acts as both a “cleaner” of messes—mostly corpses—created in physical assaults and a facilitator of elaborate escape attempts.
As if all of this weren’t complicated enough, the entire scenario is occurring as street demonstrations throughout the city are on the verge of bringing down the East German government, along with its infamous wall. And there’s another little wrinkle in the existence of a shadowy double-, or maybe triple- agent codenamed Satchel, whose actual identity is unknown but might be targeting our intrepid heroine. Whoever might it be?
Frankly it’s difficult to follow all the convolutions of the “Atomic Blonde” plot—who’s doing what, and why—but as it turns out, that isn’t very important, because ultimately it’s impossible to care about any of it. The picture is all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The characters—even Lorraine—are utterly true to their graphic novel routes, completely surface figures devoid of any inner life whatever. The cast have fun with them—with Theron exuding steely resolve and McAvoy doing a wild-eyed crazy routine, and everybody else (including Goodman) filling in predetermined blanks without adding anything to them. Certainly no one adds the dash of winking humor to the recipe with which Ian McShane brightened “Wick,” and as the body count escalates, you’re unlikely to shed any tears.
But depth of content or characterization isn’t what this movie is about; it banks on the cynicism of John le Carré, but without earning any of it. The purpose here is kick-ass action pure and simple, just as it was in “Wick,” and it certainly delivers in that respect, with Lorraine in one prolonged fight scene after another, as well as a car chase that winds up with her swimming from the submerged vehicle. As might be expected, Leitch stages them all dexterously, but the tone is rather different from that in the earlier picture—less stylishly glitzy and more down-and-dirty. By the time that Lorraine begins stabbing her muscular opponents with anything that comes to hand—keys, or what appears to be a corkscrew—or slamming them over the head with metal implements, the effect might make you cringe instead of smiling in pleasure. Presumably the intent was to achieve the sort of balance between violence and jokiness that, for example, the first “Kick-Ass” managed so well. “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t get the mixture right, and Lorraine has the bruises to prove it, iced vodka or no. (To be fair, Leitch also inserts a completely gratuitous sex scene, done up with soft-core sultriness by cinematographer Jonathan Sela and accompanied by appropriate swooning music by Tyler Bates, but that’s basically a one-off.)
The movie is certainly efficiently made pulp; Sela’s lustrous widescreen images makes fine use of David Scheunemann’s detailed period production design and Cindy Evans’ often-elaborate costumes, and editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir edits it all capably—the plot incoherence can’t be attributed to her. But while “Atomic Blonde” might not be bad enough to be renamed “Atomic Bomb,” after the preposterous postscript has rolled you might agree that despite all the surface flash, it’s a dud.