By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)

 

Hot on the heels of John Wick Chapter 2 comes Atomic Blonde (based on the graphic novel series by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a moderately entertaining, knowingly retro action/thriller that unfortunately doesn’t scale the same delirious heights as the stunning, Keanu Reeves-lead sequel.

Set during 1989, in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story opens with the brutal slaying of British agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) by Russian rival Yuri Bakhtin (Johannes Johannesson), who is after a watch which contains a list naming the true identities of all agents currently in service. Cut to ten days later, where MI6 superior Eric Grey (Toby Jones) and CIA representative Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) are interrogating crack operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who is decidedly battered and bruised from whatever mission she has just returned from.

As the interview unfolds, we discover that Lorraine was sent by Grey and Chief ‘C’ (James Faulkner) to not just recover Gasciogne’s body, but to also retrieve the stolen list, which if placed in the wrong hands, would put every undercover agent in serious danger. Arriving in Berlin, Lorraine meets her assigned partner, David Percival (James McAvoy), a maverick player who has started enjoying the Berlin nightlife and what it has to offer a little too much. Not only do the duo have to locate this highly sought-after information, but they have to contend with numerous Russian agents (and in the case of Lorraine, a seductive French spy), who are mysteriously able to stay one step ahead of the blonde bombshell.

Atomic Blonde continually feels like two different films that have been rather awkwardly meshed together. One is a chamber piece which concentrates on a verbal game of wits between Lorraine and her disbelieving interviewers, while the other is an obvious ode to 80’s action cinema, complete with an almost non-stop cavalcade of hits from that era. As structured by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (who penned 300, 300: Rise of the Empire, and Act of Valor), the move from interrogation room to action extravaganza never transitions smoothly (with elements that seem directly lifted from Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible), frequently derailing any chance the movie may have of working itself up into an adrenaline-pumping frenzy. A subplot involving a mystery double agent is introduced to the mix, but anyone who has seen a certain film from 1987 will see the twist coming from a mile away, making its ending completely anti-climactic.

David Leitch, who co-directed the surprise 2014 hit John Wick with Chad Stahelski, makes his solo debut here, and it is a technically confident effort, where his previous experience as a stunt coordinator is put to very good use. He blends footage of cast members and their stunt doubles extraordinarily well, but makes sure the audience fully appreciates the work Theron puts in during several bruising encounters. Though nicely photographed, Leitch doesn’t quite have the incredible eye for detail Stahelski displayed in John Wick Chapter 2, while the fluorescent lighting reminds one of Nicolas Winding Refn films such as Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon.

The film genuinely comes to life during a bravura sequence which appears quite late in the film, where Lorraine takes on several agents in a multi-storey building, a confrontation that ends up spilling on to the street. As good as this set-piece is however, it pales in comparison to the recent South Korean film The Villainess, which contains a number of action scenes that are breathlessly staged and genuinely eye-popping.

Theron gives a committed performance as Lorraine, embracing the character’s physicality and strength. Always looking the part, she allows us to believe that this agent can overcome any obstacle put in her way. The only thing that doesn’t convince is her flimsy British accent. McAvoy has a grand time as Percival, giving a rather one-note role a welcome wrinkle or two, and easily supplies the film with its biggest injection of energy and humour. Unfortunately Jones and Goodman, along with Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger and Barbara Sukowa, are all disappointingly under-utilised.

Atomic Blonde offers enough visually adept thrills and spills to please action fans, but a schizophrenic pace coupled with overlength, further amplified by two plot strands that don’t successfully gel, leads to a film that never truly finds its spark, despite valiant work from people on both sides of the camera.

Rating: 3/5

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