I do not think most spy movies are very effective forms of storytelling. They are, at best, vehicles for well-shot and choreographed action sequences, normally in close-quarters or in chase sequences, but most of the time fail at telling an emotionally impactful narrative. This mostly comes back to our lead character, who is more often than not stoic and immune to the events that are happening around him and comes across as emotionally detatched or uncaring about the world around them.
He’ll save the world and look cool while doing it, but if he doesn’t give a damn about anything then why should we care about what he does?
That’s not to say all spy movies are terrible, since films like “Skyfall” and “Goldfinger” are wonderful, while others like Paul Feig’s “Spy” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” flipped the spy genre on its head and played it mostly for laughs. But when I watch most spy movies, by the time we reach the end of the second act and everything starts to get tense, I often find myself uninterested in what had come before and what is about to come. I will often remember the action sequences, but find it hard to remember how or why these bits of drama happened in the first place.
David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” is a perfect example of why I don’t care for the spy genre. While the film has stunning visuals and great use of color, which is very reminiscent of Leitch’s previous film “John Wick,” and some brutal action sequences, the story and characters leave a lot to be desired and ultimately made the experience feel a bit hollow.
Set in 1989 on the eve of the Berlin Wall collapsing, MI6 agent James Gasciogne is killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin for a wristwatch that contains a piece of microfilm that has the names and activity of every active KGB agent in the field, which Yuri plans to sell on the black market to the highest bidder. MI6 sends in their top operative, agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), to find the watch and kill the agent that ousted Gasciogne, known as Agent Satchel. Lorraine also meets with agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone native, but maybe her only way of getting around Berlin.
I’ll give “Atomic Blonde” this much – it perfectly captures the feel of the 1980s. From the neon clothing, to the rock music, to the rampant experimental drugs, this film screams of the 80s. This film eats grittiness for breakfast and neon lights for dinner. There’s a certain zeitgeist to every decade and “Atomic Blonde” nails what it fells like to live during the 1980s, capped off by a boisterous soundtrack.
The action sequences in “Atomic Blonde” are quite different from what I expected. There are some longer fight sequences that use long takes, and many of them show fatigue and exhaustion in our characters, like they’re always fighting with everything they’ve got. I don’t remember many fight scenes where the hero gets tired, but this was a nice change of pace. Watching Charlize Theron trying to catch her breath in the middle of a fight was refreshing and honest.
However, the end result “Atomic Blonde” wants to go for is unsatisfying. This is because Lorraine feels so detached and emotionless from her job. She has the same emotion taking someone’s life that you or I would have from going to grocery store to get milk. This works for first two-thirds of the film when she is putting all the pieces together, but once she thinks everything is solved and has to act upon it is when the film starts to fall apart.
This could be less of a problem with “Atomic Blonde” and more of a problem with the narrative style of the spy genre in general. This film could just be following the tropes of James Bond movies by having a protagonist that only cares about finishing the mission. But in any case, this is a trope I wish to see less of.
Overall, “Atomic Blonde” is fun at points, but uninterested at others. The film has a unique feel when it comes to atmosphere and fighting style, with some great cinematography during the action. But the story is dull and the characters are even more bland. If you’re going to watch “Atomic Blonde,” I would say take its style over substance.
Final Grade: C