“Atomic Blonde” is an action movie set at a very specific time and place: November 1989, in East and West Berlin during the Wall’s final days.
And it never, ever lets you forget it.
From the endless and endlessly obvious music cues — hello, “99 Luft Balloons” and Depeche Mode and New Order and Falco and Public Enemy and so many more — to the painstakingly rendered neon settings and punk rock accouterments decorating the Communist underground — this is a movie about nothing beyond that setting.
Even the protagonist, the intense and highly trained MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) who is brought in to recover a MacGuffin in the hands of Eddie Marsan’s Stasi agent, is largely defined by her couture style and the aforementioned surroundings despite Theron’s best efforts to complicate the picture.
She can demolish a veritable army of goons wielding automatic weapons and switchblade knives by punching and kicking them into oblivion. She’s smart enough to see through British station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who has his own nefarious agent, and there’s at least a modicum of back story meant to fill in some details, but you don’t leave the movie knowing anything more about her than you went into it.
Filmmaker David Leitch, working from a screenplay by Kurt Johnstad that adapts the 2012 graphic novel “The Coldest City,” lavishes most of his attention on the action scenes, and they are impressively comprehensive and brutal, with long takes featuring a healthy dose of close-ups that emphasize Theron’s instinctive grasp of how to be simultaneously theatrical and understated as she pummels villains.
It helps to cast a great actor as an action star. Theron’s breakthrough in the genre (she was one of the highlights of the stunning “Mad Max: Fury Road”) continues to pay dividends. The movie simply doesn’t deserve her.
There’s little apparent effort applied to anything beyond the surface details in the crafting of the movie, including the creation of anything approaching a comprehensible story.
It wastes a setting rife with possibility and contemporary resonance: the confusing and tumultuous front lines at the climax of a period of great geopolitical change. Maybe it’s unfair to expect something more serious in a movie with little agenda beyond bone-crunching action set to ’80s tunes and composed like a production designer’s giddy fantasy — but to quote one of the few hits from the decade to not appear on the soundtrack, from Roxy Music, the movie could have been so much “more than this.”