Bottle openers, screwdrivers, heels and numerous other pointed objects are put to good use in Atomic Blonde, a preposterously plotted spy thriller with a barely coherent plot, bone-crunching action and relentless slickness. The cast is packed with heavyweights and the setting – Berlin in the days of the collapse of the Wall – is significant, but David Leitch’s adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest Day by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart isn’t the kind of movie to get bogged down by Cold War politics or debates on democracy.
Instead, Leitch, who co-directed the similarly vacuous but equally stylish John Wick (2014), devotes his energies to creating a visually striking world that pops with striking cinematography (by Jonathan Sela), atmospheric colour coding, surgical editing and spectacular action sequences, all set to a soundtrack of pop and punk rock classics (Depeche Mode, Clash, Nena, even George Michael). There are songs when scenes need them and songs even when they don’t, like an overstuffed Bollywood production, as though to move far away from the movie’s literary source.
Elsewhere, the camera swirls and twirls around its characters, often resting on the starkly framed faces of the numerous spies and rogue agents that populate the movie’s universe. One face dominates – Charlize Theron, whose driving skills in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) marked her out as an action heroine to rival fellow A-lister Angelina Jolie. Theron is well cast as the chain-smoking MI6 agent with the seductive rumble, high-kicking skills and structured clothing. Theron is more athletic than histrionic, which helps since the role does not require her to be anything more than a female James Bond.
Lorraine (Theron) is sent to Berlin on a three-fold mission: to find out who killed a fellow spy, prevent a list of agents in the Soviet Union from getting onto the black market, and smoke out a double agent. Matters get complicated and convoluted when Lorraine meets Berlin station agent David (James McAvoy), whose convenient cover is a DJ in a grungy nightclub, and French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella).
Lorraine’s instrumentalist sexual encounters with Delphine undermine any suggestion that female empowerment is at work here – the entanglement is of the gratuitous kind, on par with Lorraine dragging on her cigarette and fighting her way past thickets of KGB agents.
The cast has several underutilised big names, including Eddie Marsan as an East German spy who wants to defect and Toby Jones and John Goodman as British and American station chiefs respectively. McAvoy lights up his scenes, but it is Theron’s unchanging visage and her claim to the female Bond crown that steer the show from one head-scratching but ravishing scene to the next. Berlin’s shabby chic contributes its own bit to the atmospherics, of which there is no shortage whatsoever.