More cold fusion than hot fission, Atomic Blonde tries to icily merge Berlin-noir and gritty spy-thriller—it’s as if whack-a-mole 1987 espionage flick No Way Out met Daniel Craig-era 007—but it remains more of a strut-about exercise in style. This is too often a slick, swaggering music video with a few fight sequences, not a frosty fall-of-the-wall actioner.
It’s November 1989, and peroxide-blonde Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to the German metropolis by MI6 just as the Iron Curtain’s falling down. She’s got to track down a list of operatives—including one double agent, “Satchel”—that’s been stolen after it was procured by a Stasi informant, codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). But she’s got to contend with MI6’s David Percival (James McAvoy), a rogue who may have gone quite rogue. And French spy Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) has been not-so-sneakily following Broughton around town.
For all of its end-of-the-Post-World-War-II-Order setting, Atomic Blonde manages to leave Berlin as merely a cool, grungy backdrop—summed up by one shot of punks sitting on a burnt-out car by a graffiti-plastered wall—maybe because we rarely ever see or hear from any Germans. The movie’s more sound and design than anything else. There’s the debriefing frame-story, offering mostly unnecessary exposition and long looks. There are Broughton’s slinky outfits and the snappy, if often predictable, playlist (“Blue Monday,” “Major Tom,” “99 Luftballons,” “London Calling,” “Under Pressure,” etc.). There’s the spraypaint-style captions, all the neon, and the mood-lighting palette of fluorescent yellows, iceberg blues, and stoplight reds.
But then there’s Broughton’s stairwell fight, where this flick sparks into incandescence for 10 minutes. The camera often comes in so close to Broughton as she grapples, gouges, pants, slams, smashes, and staggers from one near-death punch-up with one Soviet foe to another, from stairwell to room to hallway. Determined to get Spyglass out alive but, bruised and battered, Broughton seems as bedraggled and beaten-down as Berlin itself. And for those 10 glorious, horrible minutes, this actioner seems to ask a deeper, darker question—what the hell is all this Cold-Warring really for?”