Someone once said to me that they wished James Cameron would do other people’s action scenes for them. This was back in the heyday when the one-time “King of the World” was the preeminent action filmmaker of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “True Lies.” While there have been notable action films in the 20+ years since those pictures, few have grabbed the guts of hardcore aficionados. “The Raid” and its sequel certainly come to mind, as does George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The current cause celebre is “John Wick” which longtime stunt coordinator David Leitch has an uncredited co-directing credit on. Now Leitch has moved on to have his own chair in an adaptation of Antony Johnston’s graphic novel, “The Coldest City,” that is likely to have fans of “John Wick” gleefully in rapture during the film’s brutally fun action sequences. If only there was something to make the other 80% of the film equally interesting.
The metaphor is not lost as Charlize Theron’s secret agent, Lorraine, dips herself in and out of an icy bath accompanied by a vodka on-the-rocks. She has a number of fresh bruises but is still alive, meaning it is flashback time as she recounts the events leading up to her questioning by her MI-6 superior (Toby Jones) and an American CIA official (John Goodman). Not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a list of intelligence assets has been put into the wrong hands (yes, another one of those lists) and Lorraine has been dispatched to track it down. Her rendezvous contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a former bureau chief who now makes a living on the black market, enjoying the sex and alcohol that exist more as pain medication to Lorraine.
Percival has dealings with a German operative nicknamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who is hoping to secure safe passage for his family out of Berlin in exchange for the list which he has committed to memory. (The original list is kept within a watch that keeps changing wrists throughout the film.) Lorraine also meets a young French spy (Sofia Boutella) who quickly mixes feelings with business for the occasional roll-in-the-hay. Just for good measure there are also inferences about a potential double agent by the name of Satchel in the mix.
The numerous parts to the script by Kurt Johnstad (“300,” “Act of Valor“) are not so much hard to keep track of as they barely seem to move at all. The promise of a fire-and-ice coupling of McAvoy and Theron as partners is too good to ignore and yet after their initial meet-up they are kept far apart for much of the film’s running time. Boutella has an unmistakable presence but it is too grounded in the middle to be fully mysterious or worthy of our care. Theron is not going for cool here, rather tired and beatdown, which is wholly appropriate for a story within the death knell of the Cold War. Unfortunately the material around her is hardly Le Carre or Clancy enough to be fully introspective or driven by suspense.
If only “Atomic Blonde” had steered its way to crafting a few more of its frenetic set pieces, the rest could have been easily forgiven or at least forgotten about as a means to an end. Because when the moment arrives for Theron to demonstrate her full range of skills, whether it be wriggling out as a backseat captive at full speed or dispatching any number of gun-toting soldiers with just her fists, the plot blurs but the film suddenly lights on fire. Theron cemented her place in action heroine history as Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but watching her command the bravura centerpiece staircase battle, one wants to call up Joe Carnahan and make him consider changing the lead in his remake of “The Raid” to a female and just hand it to Charlize.
It is a real shame that seemingly unbroken set piece (even if the edit marks are obvious) is about the last we get in the action department as the story wraps itself up in unsatisfactory fashion, beating its own drum about its self-important breakdown of Cold War dynamics. Soak up enough neon mood lighting in nearly every scene and the visual styling usurps whatever substance attempts to creep through the European-influenced song choices (no room for INXS’ “Suicide Blonde” here.) When even momentary flourishes of action this good remind us how poorly filmed and choreographed most modern action films are, it is hard not to recommend “Atomic Blonde” on that basis alone. Given that the film gives us ample time to catch our breath in-between the punching, kicking and shooting it will be easier to wish that it had all been condensed into an accessible YouTube video of just the action bits. Then afterwards you hope that someone takes notice and casts Theron alongside Keanu Reeves for a third time in the third chapter of “John Wick.” [C+]