When John Wick made its debut, it instantly got directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s flair for thrillingly intense action with perfectly choreographed stunts noticed, and it paved the way for Stahelski to elaborate on the John Wick universe with a successful sequel released earlier this year as well as a third installment on the way. Uncredited co-director Leitch was not overlooked, however, and with the movie world currently abuzz with the recent reveal of the look of Josh Brolin’s Cable in the Leitch-helmed Deadpool 2, his second feature-length effort Atomic Blonde is opening to plenty of interest as to what the director is capable of on his own.
Charlize Theron, who leads the proceedings in Atomic Blonde, has always been known to be a dedicated and talented actress, and she has also proven her dedication to the physicality involved with being an action hero with her effort is the critically acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road from 2015. Thanks to being helmed by one of the directors of the first John Wick, plenty of comparisons had already been drawn between John Wick and Atomic Blonde prior to the release of the latter, and when news broke that Keanu Reeves had on occasion served as Theron’s sparring partner during rehearsals, many deemed Atomic Blonde to be ‘chick Wick’. Thankfully, Leitch’s first full-length solo venture does not rely on the world and style of John Wick as such, but the stunt work is still as exceptional, breathtaking, and hard-hitting as should be expected from someone with Leitch’s stunt credentials. The film’s final act is particularly intense, as the audience learns exactly what led Theron’s Lorraine Broughton to become as battered and bruised as she appears from the beginning of the film, which takes place in an MI6 debriefing room where agent Broughton takes us 10 days back in time to plenty of ass-kicking and other espionage antics.
Aside from the composition of the stunt sequences, as a whole, the film also boasts highly stylish visuals with smooth cinematography and color grading. While the hues are kept cold and clinical in the debriefing scenes, the lengthy rewinds to Broughton’s time in Berlin have a similarly monochrome palette, which is brightened by the use of the kind of strong neon colors many find synonymous with the 1980’s. The way the decade is presented in general is also commendable, as the film manages to portray it nostalgically with its color scheme and soundtrack choices, all the while avoiding becoming a caricatural representation of the time period.
However, as the old adage goes, a film is usually only as good as its script, and Atomic Blonde unfortunately offers little intrigue in terms of plot. While the simplicity of the plots of the John Wick films work for the overall structure of those films because of how Reeves and his costars manage to maintain a certain momentum thanks to how the characters’ drive keep us invested between the –in the best sense of the word – exhaustingly intense fights and shootouts, trying to sell Atomic Blonde as a spy thriller more so than a well-crafted string of action set pieces does Leitch’s latest a disservice. The story at the core of Atomic Blonde is as generic and predictable as spy thrillers come, and the film therefore continuously loses its momentum between action sequences because of how the story meanders blandly in the first two acts in particular.
As the John Wick films have shown, there are other options for contemporary action set pieces than frantic editing, eye-rolling overuse of slow motion and headache-inducing shaky cam. Not only is the stunt work of the two films about the master assassin meticulously choreographed, you also vicariously feel the pain that the actors and stuntmen are mimicking, which makes you further invest in the characters and their objectives. Alas, while you definitely also feel the hits that Theron takes in Atomic Blonde, the film simply does not have the same intense edge that John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 have, nor does Theron’s dedicated efforts manage to make neither keys nor corkscrews as unnerving as Reeves made pencils. However, in terms of visual style and stunt choreography, Deadpool 2 looks to be in safe hands with Leitch as long as the continued adventures of the merch with a mouth has a better script.
Verdict: 7 out of 10.