Being a spy film, Atomic Blonde is lousy with double and triple crosses, revisiting earlier scenes from different perspectives and withholding information til necessary. A line from Machiavelli, about the purest of delights being to deceive a deceiver, reverberates throughout the film, and every character is chasing that kind of victory. The tropes present in spy thrillers like this one don’t often work on me, with the necessary impassiveness of the characters matching the oft-dreary environment they’re typically set in. The coldness keeps me at arm’s length, but Atomic Blonde runs hotter than most. Some of this is set dressing. The nihilism of a collapsing state is on full display. Percival has embedded himself into Berlin society as a figure in the punk scene, far away from any kind of stuffy Bond-ian archetype.
Atomic Blonde is further warmed up by Theron herself. She conducts herself icily, with sly smirks being the most emoting she does in her interactions, but it’s apparent that still waters run deep. Her habit of taking freezing ice baths, ostensibly to calm the snarling bruises that rise up on her after hand-to-hand combat, also functions as a way to staunch any feelings of loss. Each of these masochistic displays are surprisingly affecting, a way to demonstrate vulnerability through action. In the field, with her impeccable wardrobe and her seducing of sources like LaSalle, she’s closer to Bond, but those ice baths put her closest to the version of Bond played by Daniel Craig, the only version that we’ve seen take anything home. Like Craig’s arguably superior portrayal, Broughton is coldly effective but still in possession of her humanity.
The most important draw for Atomic Blonde is Leitch’s action filmmaking, and it doesn’t disappoint. The trailers and his past work on John Wick suggested something more fun than Atomic Blonde ends up being. This is a brutal film on par with something like The Raid. Where John Wick blasted his way through waves of enemies, Broughton isn’t living in a fantasy of gold coins and secret hotels. Leitch is operating off of the truism that it is in fact a hard thing to kill a man, especially when they’re trained. A lengthy set piece involves Broughton squaring off against two enemies in a stairwell. As it goes on, the combatants get tired with each blow to the face or trunk, until they’re hunched over breathing heavily before charging back at each other for more. It’s intensely choreographed in minute detail, contrasting John Wick’s graceful gun-kata with the single-take blunt force of slamming a hot plate into an assailant’s head.
For all the care that went into making it, Atomic Blonde’s gritty thrill ride is largely a skin-deep exercise. As far as disposable action goes, it stands capably next to campier fare like 80’s schlock and 90’s blow-em-ups. Those kinds of films have morphed into the present’s grittier outings, of which Atomic Blonde is a fine example and worthy descendent. B