I’m still not sure how exactly did something like Atomic Blonde, carrying so much unexpected promise from the idea of one of the original directors of John Wick going solo to helm this, with Charlize Theron leading the way, with a soundtrack that goes from The Clash, New Order, Depeche Mode, and David Bowie – would end up becoming as disappointing as this. After Chad Stahelski has found himself achieving success from directing John Wick: Chapter 2 solo, I’m not sure what is left of David Leitch’s future after this, because the lack of Stahelski by his side shows that there’s still something missing in what could have made itself a female equivalent to John Wick. And given as it was exactly what I was hoping for, I was disappointed that it wasn’t a female equivalent in such a sense, more just a hollow imitator.
It’s a hollow imitator by the bones of its own substance, because Atomic Blonde is a film driven more by its own style rather than its substance. Which is fine to a certain extent, if the visual storytelling is engaging in some way by becoming the substance – but the case for Atomic Blonde presents a different scenario. It’s a film that carries itself primarily on the way it looks, because the substance which it carries is noticeably thin. It seems so thin because it’s the same complicated spy plot that we’ve already familiarized ourselves with over the years, but minute details don’t ever find themselves adding to become something greater. It could easily have been written as a James Bond film, where Charlize Theron is playing James Bond and Sofia Boutella is the archetypal “Bond girl,” emphasizing one pivotal issue: you can write Charlize Theron’s character as a male, and a drastic alteration would not feel noticeable.
The weakness of the film’s substance also made clear an issue with characterization, for it was ever most present in James McAvoy’s role. McAvoy, who can carry an entertaining screen presence is clearly trying his best, but given how much the film was building up to with his role, it was easy to see what was coming from a mile away. But there comes the soundtrack, built on bands and artists that go from The Clash, David Bowie, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees among a few as noted above. Obviously, the music is great (who doesn’t love Bowie or New Order though?), but it’s used in all the wrong ways – which is bad enough with the political backdrop where Atomic Blonde is set against, for the background only seems to be so insignificant within its own storytelling. Every song sets up the direction of the scene and the next, not just through mood, but in an eerie foreshadow that only reminds you of the sort of story you’re watching.
At its most impressive, Atomic Blonde boasts an impressive aesthetic whether it be within the colours or the action choreography. David Leitch has an absorbing visual style, one that would suit Charlize Theron’s screen presence and how she’s performing her own stunt work. And with that having been said, if you’re only there to see Charlize Theron being a badass, you’ll definitely have the time of your life with Atomic Blonde – and the idea should be more appealing to me, but it isn’t in this scenario. The action is as impressive as you would expect from a film directed by one of the minds behind John Wick, and the imagery is hypnotizing especially if you’re in love with the neon aesthetic it is driving itself upon. And in this regard, I already found it easy to admire Atomic Blonde for knowing what it was, and yet a different case scenario is present with how it seems it doesn’t want to be more.
When it’s at its worst, however, it feels a need to show off. It seems to be aware of how weak its own substance is, but the way it’s calling to be different only would ever induce as much as a few eye rolls, whether it be through a nod to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker by having it play in the background, faux long takes that only make the action appear tedious, or the way it uses The Clash’s “London Calling” upon a scene heading to Paris (as if such a wonderful song hadn’t already been used lazily over any London montage). It seems to be an action film that’s under the illusion that it’s “different” because it’s evidently trying too hard in spiking out its differences rather than expanding on why it’s allowing itself to stand out – and quite frankly it’s happened a whole lot with Atomic Blonde. None of these aspects are enough to make up for a thin plot, one that we’ve already seen numerous times prior.
I think it’s clear enough that if David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are set to go on their own solo careers, Stahelski would probably turn out far more successful because if this is the sort of film that Leitch will continue on with, then I’m already tuning out. The very idea that we not only had Charlize Theron as an LGBTQ+ action star but also a neon aesthetic that would go so smoothly with her environments was already enough to sound appealing, only for everything to be ruined by how we aren’t being told anything different as opposed to a film trying too hard to be different. So in a sense, was Atomic Blonde the atomic bomb we were hoping it would drop on the action genre in recent years? The sad answer from me is no, it’s as disposable as the most generic ones are – and an atomic disappointment is what we’re left with.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Focus Features.
Directed by David Leitch
Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart
Produced by Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A. J. Dix, Kelly McCormick, Eric Gitter, Peter Schwerin
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Toby Jones
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 115 minutes