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Remember Kurt Loder? Before MTV News experimented with worthwhile cultural criticism, only to abandon it in favor ofmore video, Kurt Loder was the credible face for an aesthetic-defining cable news network. He looked like Peter Jennings, with a slightly better haircut and daring fashion sense. Loder briefly appears in Atomic Blonde, a spy thriller set in Berlin during the very end of the 1980s. He discusses sampling, the biggest music controversy of the day, saying the jury’s out whether samples are creative or mere theft. The reference is a meta-commentary on the film, since director David Leitch remixes countless elements into something that peppers nostalgia with modern action. Atomic Blonde can be meandering, sometimes indulgent, yet its infrequent strong scenes overpower the weak ones.
Before the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989, tensions in the divided city were palpable. Crossing the wall was heavily restricted, and yet the young Westerners yearned for a release from the concrete metaphor staring at them. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) finds herself in this dangerous, irresistible milieu.
The mission is to recover a list of Western spies—it is contained inside a mechanical watch, now in Russian hands—and if it’s not recovered, the Cold War could last for another couple decades. Lorraine’s contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), another English spy who has “gone native,” embracing Berlin’s contraband-fueled excess. The irony is that Lorraine’s handler (Toby Jones) warns her not to trust anyone, and David does not seem so reliable. When Lorraine discovers an ex-Stasi agent (Eddie Marsan) who memorized the list, her mission forces her into a hornet’s nest of armed spies.
Aside from the Loder reference, Atomic Blonde is going for an MTV look—in the retro sense of the word. Lorraine’s hotel room glistens with inky black glass, with a warm hum of neon reds and purples. Berlin’s winter looks oppressive, so everyone has an extensive collection of fashionable, punk-tinged outerwear (the fashion designer must have had a ball). Leitch, who co-directed the 2014 smash John Wick, even has his film resemble a music video. The soundtrack has a greatest hits playlist of synth-heavy new wave tracks, including Til Tuesday and New Order, and the volume is a touch louder than a normal film. It feels like being in a super-stylish nightclub on ’80s night.
The trouble is that the dialogue and plotting does not match the top-notch production values. Kurt Johnstad’s script, adapted from The Coldest City graphic novel series, develops side characters seemingly at random. Atomic Blonde is told in flashback, with a battered Lorraine debriefing her superiors, and the overlaid voice over does little to clear up who the characters are, or what they mean to each other. There are some jokes, mostly from McAvoy, and yet only the physical gags earn the laugh.
Speaking of physical, the best parts of Atomic Blonde are the fight scenes. Theron performed her own stunts, and there is a determined, raw power with each punch and kick. Lorraine mostly fights people bigger than her, so her strategy is to use anything nearby as weapon. This includes bottles, pans, corkscrews, and even a hot plate. All the action culminates in an agonizing, visceral fight scene that must last for 10 minutes. It is Lorraine versus a handful of Soviet spies, and none of them are pushovers. There is more agony here than the typical action scene—by the end, she can barely stand—and the emphasis on pain adds plausible weight to the choreography. Leitch edits the fight so it looks like one continuous take, with wild camera pans allowing for different shots, and yet the sequence still suggests the depth of Lorraine’s will. This fight alone is worth the price of admission.
Like all modern spy films, Atomic Blonde attempts to shoehorn some depth about the psychological costs of espionage. This is mostly through McAvoy’s David, an amoral hedonist who embraces the blurred moral lines of a city on the cusp of revolution. Many characters, including Lorraine, acknowledge they are disposable. Leitch attempts this out of obligation, not curiosity, throwing in additional Bond-inspired clichés (Sofia Boutella pops up as a French spy, yet she has nothing interesting beyond a sex scene). Atomic Blonde is too esoteric for its own good, and mainstream appeal. But does the idea of a strong, beautiful woman beating the shit out of men sound appealing? Would it sound even better if George Michael’s “Father Figure” played in the background? Then for about 30 minutes of a two-hour film, Atomic Blonde will reach out and touch you—right in the kidneys.
Atomic Blonde opens Friday in theaters everywhere.