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“Atomic Blonde” is set in November 1989, at a time when the Cold War was coming to an end and the fall of the Berlin Wall was imminent. This backdrop creates a tense atmosphere to complement the film’s espionage centric plot, but as the opening credits explain the political landscape isn’t essential to the narrative. The film is directed by David Leitch, co-director of “John Wick”, and is based on the 2012 graphic novel “The Coldest City”.

The McGuffin of the film is a microfilm containing the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union; codenamed ‘the list’. This plot device is unfortunately generic and derivative, as you would expect given its insipid codename, and although the film is technically sound it is unquestionably held down by an uninspired premise. This is then compounded by the fact that the plot proceeds in a convoluted and unnecessarily obtuse fashion.


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With the plot framed as a battle between East and West you might expect there to be a strong Russian antagonist at the heart of the conflict, but curiously this isn’t the case. The film is, for the most part, devoid of a central villain; Lorraine (Charlize Theron), an MI6 spy and the film’s main character, gets into scuffles with a number of nameless henchmen working for KGB associate Comrade Bremovych (Roland Møller), but he’s nothing more than a background figure. The absence of a traditional antagonist could be forgiven if it felt as though there was a faceless threat behind the scenes, but this isn’t the case, and in fact the lack of a genuine villain does nothing but lessen the impact of an important twist late in the film.

Nevertheless, the narrative constraints of “Atomic Blonde” are not wholly damning. It’s not unheard of for a film in the action genre to lack substance and there are certainly ways to make a movie of this ilk entertaining despite an unconvincing story. Much like “John Wick” this film boasts a strong lead performance, good fight choreography and a distinct visual aesthetic, and these aspects go some way to compensating for a fairly dull story.


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Visually “Atomic Blonde” is engaging, flitting back-and-forth from a bleak colour palette of grey and black to flashes of neon, and this duplicity carries over to the movie’s tone which sways between pulpy action flick and serious spy drama. The fact that Leitch doesn’t commit to a singular approach admittedly creates a jarring experience, but this meshes adequately with the genre and doesn’t completely derail the experience.

The choice to use music frequently in the film gave it a playful feel and helped to create a cool factor which otherwise would’ve been lacking, but at the same time it didn’t feel as though enough effort had gone into choosing the tracks. The soundtrack was predominantly made up of songs from the 80’s which were either intact or covered. Some of these songs fit their scenes perfectly and complemented the tone of the movie, but others felt like they were present because they had to be rather than because they belonged. This made it difficult to overlook the fact that recent releases such as “Baby Driver” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” have used music in a similar but more successful way.


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The best thing about “Atomic Blonde” was the acting of the two leads; Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Theron plays leading lady Lorraine with confidence, showcasing vulnerability and physicality in equal measure. She holds the film together and delivers rudimentary dialogue with enthusiasm, elevating the material to a level that it has no right to reach. McAvoy is equally good as a detestable but charismatic British agent who has become jaded after serving 10 years in Berlin, and although his performance was slightly over-the-top he controlled the screen whenever he appeared.

All in all, “Atomic Blonde” was an entertaining but somewhat hollow action thriller. There’s a lot to be admired in the fight choreography, with one standout sequence on a staircase providing value for money in and of itself, but it’s impossible to ignore the limitations of the script. It’s a stylish and visually stimulating film with committed performances and competent direction, but the end product is undoubtedly style over substance.