1. The moment you’re waiting for in Atomic Blonde, the reason you’re watching in the first place, doesn’t come until more than an hour in. Sure, we’ve seen Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton kick some ass to that point, as we’d expect from John Wick co-director David Leitch, but nothing that rises to the level of audaciousness of that genre-bending cult hit. We’ve sat through a lot of plot and a lot of espionage intrigue that we’ve seen hundreds of times before, and we sure do listen to a lot, a lot, of ’80s music. But the movie, until that particular moment, never justifies its existence, never lets us in on anything special it’s doing than giving Theron an opportunity to knock some fools’ heads around. It’s just another movie, and not a particularly interesting one. And then it happens.
2. The background of the fight scene that makes Atomic Blonde worthy of seeing regardless of everything that comes before and after it is not particularly relevant; it’s all related to that mostly by-the-numbers plot we were just mostly dismissive of. All that matters is that it happens. The details: There’s a man (Eddie Marsan) at the bottom of the stairs she must protect. There are four men, with guns, at the top of the stairwell that she must vanquish before they get to the bottom. The camera won’t turn away, at any point. She’s just gotta fight her way down there. The scene, a 10-minute-long bravura sequence—it’s not shot in one-take, but it feels like it, Birdman-style—is a sweaty, grunting, exhausting, absolutely exceptional sequence that instantly becomes one of the more iconic fight scenes of the last two decades. Think the corridor fight from Oldboy, only three times as long, and in knee-high boots, and ending with a car chase. By the end, you’ll be gasping for air as much as everyone fighting is.
3. The rest of the film is at best pedestrian up to that point and, at its worst, a bit of a restless sit. Theron always keeps it moving, though, as Broughton, an MI6 officer under interrogation by a superior officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA bigwig (John Goodman, who could have a whole next act to his career playing cynical lifelong spooks in trench coats, hiding grave secrets). Just days after the Berlin Wall has fallen in 1989, Broughton relays the plot in flashback, as she and fellow MI6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy), a shady tapped-in Berlin operative, attempt to get back “The List,” a McGuffin that apparently includes the name and secrets of every spy from every country on the planet. Along the way, she runs into a mysterious “Watchmaker” (Til Schweiger), a family man (Marsan) who has memorized the contents of “The List” and, intriguingly, an inexperienced French operative (Sofia Boutella) who seems to know a lot less about espionage than she does about getting Broughton into her bed (not that either are complaining).
4. You won’t find much of this particularly new or enlightening. It’s a little surprising, considering how much thought Leitch (no relation, by the way) has put into the action sequences, how perfunctory and even lackadaisical the rest of the film is. The plot itself isn’t just derivative, it’s muddled; he keeps throwing twists and turns and red herrings at us until we essentially give up trying to follow along. He doesn’t have a firm enough control over tone to get us to care about the particulars, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall backdrop seems less about real-world political ramifications and more about allowing him to set every scene to an ’80s song. (They’re also the most obvious, “Now That’s What I Call The ’80s!” selections at every turn. This movie plays “99 Red Balloons” twice. Also, this movie takes place in 1989, but there is no “My Prerogative” or Guns & N’ Roses here: This thing is Flock of Seagulls all the way.) It’s surprising how little investment there is in the details of this story; it’s just a bunch of pretend posing and plot turns you’ll see coming a mile away. This might have the least surprising Villain Reveal in recent memory.
5. Theron still yanks the thing over the finish line, though. We’ve seen Theron be tough before (most famously in Mad Max: Fury Road), but she’s fascinatingly formidable yet vulnerable here. She’s both more perfect and more furious than everybody else but also not impervious to pain. She’s given more flaws, more fighting weaknesses, than John Wick ever had; she takes a bunch of hits, and you feel them. It makes her, and every scene she’s in, that much more mesmerizing. Broughton has no superpowers, which makes her victories and persistence all the more impressive. She’s a true warrior. I’m not sure I need to see much of anything else in Atomic Blonde again, from the setting to the supporting characters to even the music. But I’d watch Leitch direct Theron kicking ass for plenty of movies to come. If the world reacts to that stairs sequence the way I think they will, I’ll get the opportunity.
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofie Boutella, Toby Jones
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.