It's not fair to expect a feature-length movie to live up to its highlights-only trailer, and that especially applies to "Atomic Blonde". The trailer was bubbling with kinetic energy, pulsing neons and the best possible use of a killer Kanye West-Depeche Mode mash-up. No movie could match that for two hours.
But the highest praise I can heap on the film itself: It comes damn close. And it delivers what the trailer promised in a Cold War tale with a style-over-substance-but-it's-awesome-so-shut-up attitude that dares the audience not to like it.
Directed by David Leitch and starring Charlize Theron as British spy Lorraine Broughton, "Atomic Blonde" takes place in a divided Berlin in 1989, just 10 days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Broughton has been sent to into the city to recover a list of Western spies operating in the Soviet sphere that's been lost -- a classic spy movie MacGuffin, but oh well.
Broughton teams up with David Percival, played by James McAvoy, who is supposed to be MI-6's man in Berlin, but whose allegiance fairly quickly comes into question. There's also a beautiful French spy tangled in there, who, in a welcome take on intelligence officers, appears to know she's in over her head in a deadly game.
But the plot, really, is beside the point. The point is that every scene and damn near every shot of the film looks gorgeous or grimy or both depending on what part of Berlin we're in and what Broughton's up to. This is true of sleek Berlin lounges and nightclubs where an immaculate, sexy Boughton goes to track down some information from other, equally sexy people, and of a brutal, long-take fight scene on a run-down, pock-marked staircase that leaves Broughton very visibly beaten and scarred. The film earns serious bonus points in my book for showing, as the fight progresses, the absolute exhaustion of the combatants until the last couple can barely stand -- a real-world detail lost on most action movies.
Leitch, a former stunt man, was an uncredited co-director for 2014's sleeper action hit "John Wick", and the man knows how to stage and shoot innovative fight scenes. At almost no point in the film does anyone seem safe, and that low-level tension is allowed to simmer until exploding in sudden violence that is reliably interesting.
Theron is the anchor for all this, playing Broughton as detached, determined and almost impossibly cool, but with just enough physical and emotional frailty to remind the audience that the stakes for her are real.
The acting, from Theron on down, is solid, and especially McAvoy seems to be having a blast playing an enthusiastically seedy, fur-coat-wearing British spy who maybe has been in Berlin too long for his own good.
The movie exaggerates lighting, plays with the soundtrack and certain sound cues, and uses spray paint-style on-screen location markers that all double down on the idea that the audience is being shown the fever-dream version of Berlin on the edge.
And it all works, fantastically well. I'm not sure I even remember what happened to the list everyone was after, and the thing is, I don't care.
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