Based on the best moments of “Atomic Blonde,” I would very much like to see a series of films in which Charlize Theron’s ruthless, brutal and glamorous secret agent dispatches a variety of Cold War-era enemies to the accompaniment of hit songs from the 80s. And should that series come to be, audiences can look back on “Atomic Blonde” as the erratic-but-on-to-something near miss that it is, in the same way that 007 fans honor “Dr. No” but acknowledge that “Goldfinger” was where the franchise really took flight.
As a spy thriller, “Atomic Blonde” cobbles together some very familiar elements — the MacGuffin here is a list of all the spies everywhere, or something — with an aggressively gleaming sheen, the latter all the more appropriate since the film is set in November 1989, with the Berlin Wall set to topple. The Cold War is on the verge of ending, leaving many of the players abandoned on the chessboard with no direction to follow, and that’s one of many ideas that the film flirts with exploring before blasting another vintage pop song instead.
The screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“Act of Valor,” “300”), based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s Oni Press graphic novel series “The Coldest City,” doesn’t quite know how to fill the gaps between the action set pieces; it eventually corkscrews into a third-act switcheroo-on-a-switcheroo that’s both baffling and utterly unearned.
But it’s those action sequences — crafted by director David Leitch, a veteran stuntman and uncredited co-director of “John Wick” — that will stay in the memory. When Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is taking care of business in a speeding car, an apartment (armed only with a garden hose) or a stairwell, “Atomic Blonde” enters action-movie nirvana. But while “John Wick” created a world (and emotional stakes) that kept us interested in those downtime moments without bloodshed, this movie never quite pulls off the same trick.
Lorraine opens the film deep inside MI6, being debriefed by her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA bigwig Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) about what the heck just happened in Berlin. Her mission was to recover the spy list that had been stolen by a KGB agent; fellow British agent David Percival (James McAvoy, in buzz-cut manic mode) was supposed to be her backup, but life in East Berlin has turned him into something of a loose cannon.
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She encounters the usual suspects in a movie like this, from a parade of Russian goons to a seductive French spy (Sofia Boutella, “The Mummy”) who becomes the film’s de facto Bond girl by slipping between the sheets with Lorraine. Leitch has some fun with specificity of time and place, whether by casting German film icons like Barbara Sukowa and Til Schweiger in supporting roles or staging a fight scene behind the screen of an East Berlin movie theater that’s screening Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.”
Music supervisor John Houlihan and his team clearly put in overtime cobbling together the song score that runs pretty much wall-to-wall in the film, and it’s a gimmick that sometimes works and sometimes distracts. It’s one thing to throw in the German-language versions of “99 Luftballons” and “Major Tom,” but it’s a little on the nose to play “Voices Carry” — twice, mind you — over scenes in which secrets are being revealed. The song choices turn out to be mere flash and dazzle, rather than being relevant to the story in the way that “Baby Driver” pumps up the jams; the way they switch between being diegetic and non-diegetic smacks more of directorial preening (and a marketable soundtrack) than of a consistent storytelling strategy.
Theron, of course, wraps this movie around her little finger and the audience with it, and her fellow players are game as well, particularly Boutella, displaying a level of sexy wit and spark that her title role in “The Mummy” denied her. Even the thankless role of the Stasi officer who must be smuggled over the wall gets more gusto than we might imagine, thanks to Eddie Marsan filling the role (with an appropriately Iron-Curtain mustache).
We’re left knowing very little about Lorraine Broughton except that she’s great at lying and killing, but that’s certainly enough to launch a spy series. Here’s hoping by the time we get to Chapter 3 (“Reykjavik on Fire,” or whatever), the banter and the double-crosses will be as kinetic as the fistfights and gun battles.