Wake me up when it’s gone, gone
Stunning fight sequences can’t rescue a film with such a thin grasp on its setting
ATOMIC BLONDE ★★
Directed by David Leitch Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones 16 cert, gen release, 115 min
If ever there were a film that you wished were just a little bit better, then Atomic Blonde is it. Just a little. Is that too much to ask? Charlize Theron works furiously to bring some small weight to a character so feathery she barely manages to remain attached to the screen. The action sequences are stunning. But the outer framework is unforgivably shabby: a threadbare espionage plot mounted on a mass of embarrassingly clunky 1980s period detail. They stopped short of having Boy George attempt to run Charlize over with a Sinclair C5. But I’m betting it was a close-run thing.
Let us give credit where it is due. As we might expect from David Leitch, co-director of John Wick, the fight sequences are fast, crunchy, balletic and numerous. The film is worth seeing alone for one enormous faked “single shot” that, over a jarring 10 minutes, finds Theron fighting her way up and down the staircase of a grungy Berlin building and then out into the street for an extended car chase.
It matters not a whit that the sequence was actually patched together from nearly 40 shots. The fluidity is astonishing. The grace of the violence offers guilty thrills. Theron and her doubles move with a precision that confirms nobody is pretending this is what actual fisticuffs look like. It’s a classic.
Almost everything else about the picture is rubbish. In what looks like a pointless allusion to Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Toby Jones is cast as a senior MI6 official tasked with debriefing agent Theron in a padded room that looks very like that in the Le Carré adaptation. It is 1989 and the spooks are trying to recover a vital list before the Wall comes down. If they don’t then something will happen that even those viewers who remain awake will have trouble caring about. John Goodman is an American. James McAvoy is an Englishman who says: “Do the math” (spoiler: that doesn’t turn out to be a clue).
All these people move through a version of 1989 that looks to have been designed by somebody who once heard somebody talk about a Duran Duran video, but who has never actually seen one. The music would be poundingly obvious – Nena, Falco, Depeche Mode – if it weren’t so often plucked from the wrong end of the decade. And the fashion? Who was still wearing a Boy T-shirt in 1989?
Wake me up when it’s gone, gone.
Blonde in Berlin
Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella