Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We’re long overdue for a female James Bond – and we finally get something close in director David Leitch’s ATOMIC BLONDE. Gazelle-like star Charlize Theron’s steely, sexy spy kicks major ass, all whilst looking super sleek. Similar to JOHN WICK, this bloody, brutal, bruising and completely uncompromising picture knows where its strengths lie, putting the incomparable stunt work at the forefront. Get ready to bliss out because not only is this genre porn for literate cinephiles, it’s also shoe porn, wardrobe porn and new wave music porn! However, much like porn of any kind, it’s the plot that gets in the way of the orgasmic climaxes.
Lithe, laconic MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) has been brought in for a debriefing by her superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent (John Goodman) to recount the events that took place on a mission ten days earlier in Berlin. Her secret agent colleague/ secret lover James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) was killed by the KGB, and Lorraine was brought in to do what he could not: retrieve a highly confidential list of secret agents hidden inside a Swiss watch. If this Macguffin falls into the wrong hands, it could extend the Cold War indefinitely. It also contains the name of a covert double agent. Aiding in her mission is Berlin contact David Percival (James McAvoy, who poaches Tyler Durden’s punk style), French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) and informant Merkel (Bill Skarsgård). But are all these people on the up and up? The bruises that litter Lorraine’s face and body help set that scene.
Leitch (who also directed a few scenes on JOHN WICK) and company know exactly how to shoot and choreograph precise action sequences, so it’s no surprise those are the standout moments. Just when you think one action-driven scene is an all-timer (that apartment fight!), another one (that long-take staircase sequence that bleeds out into the street, then into a CHILDREN OF MEN-inspired shot inside a car!) appears. Leitch uses the neon-lit new-wave soundtrack to punctuate these scenes magnificently. Music comes part and parcel to the kicking of the ass. It’s intertwined fabulously. Songs that would typically be on-the-nose needle drops augment the atmospheric, illuminating its illustrious smoky glow. The ways “Voices Carry,” “Father Figure,” “99 Luftballoons,” “Cat People (Putting Out Fire With Gasoline),” and “I Ran” are utilized give a knowing wink and a smile to the audience. The filmmakers set the table with them. Now enjoy their sensual feast.
With a film of this ilk, it’s a blessing that the camera isn’t shaky – even when going handheld. Rather, it glides smoothly, letting the stunt performers work their magic. Jonathan Sela’s sparkling cinematography is chic, polished and poppy. Cindy Evans’ stellar costume design takes center stage, using a black and white palette for Lorraine to emphasize the character’s duality. It excels when it’s brilliantly incorporated into the action, stretching with her intense physicality. There’s a certain glee when we’re shown lipstick-red Dior pumps weaponized in the “Major Tom” ride from the airport.
Too bad that the narrative itself isn’t nearly as thrilling as the relentless, ingenious action. Based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel series, The Coldest City, Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay gets a little gnarled by over-complication. Character motivations are questionable – and not just because we’re dealing in the world of deceitful spies, which it seems to be the excuse. Basics, like logistics dealing with everyone not named Lorraine, are ignored primarily on behalf of contrivance. The wrap around story device is rote and rudimentary, there to add a cool Fincher-esque flair, but it only drags down the proceedings. Since this is Germany in the 80’s, at least they manage to get in a solid David Hasselhoff joke.
If you can ignore the story and forgive its blights (which you will because it’s a f*ckton of fun), you’ll find ATOMIC BLONDE is as lit as the cigarettes its characters smoke.
ATOMIC BLONDE opens on June 28.