Cynically commercial, Atomic Blonde is a total waste of Charlize Theron

David Leitch's film forgets that a driver is only as good as her vehicle.

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Atomic Blonde has been in development for a good few years now but it was the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, starring Charlize Theron as an unsmiling, one-armed, shaven-headed trucker, that accelerated production. One of the new picture’s 19 producers must have arrived at a simple equation (Theron + action = dynamite), forgetting in the excitement that a driver is only as good as her vehicle.

Theron has hair this time, as well as a full complement of limbs, though there’s still precious little smiling. Her acting here comes in two modes: sunglasses off and sunglasses on. Mostly on. She plays a British spy named Lorraine, which sounds a bit Birds of a Feather for MI6, but then this is the 1980s.

We are in pre-unified Berlin shortly before the Wall comes down, which means lashings of neon, spray paint and cigarette smoke, as well as the use of pop hits including David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, already associated with two other films (Cat People and Inglourious Basterds), and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom”, the theme from the TV series Deutschland 83. Four names are credited with music, but does it really take that many people to pinch soundtrack ideas from other places?

Dressed in a series of raincoats that scream “Look at me! I’m a spy!”, Lorraine is on the trail of a stolen microfilm containing a list of her colleagues. “If the Russians get that, we’ll be buggered sideways,” declares her boss, which sounds like an agreeable outcome compared to what Lorraine does to her enemies. One adversary she stabs in the face with a set of keys. They just hang there from his cheek. At least he’ll know where they are when he needs them.

Her counterpart in Berlin is the uncouth David Percival (James McAvoy). “You’ve got some balls breaking in here: I’m impressed,” Lorraine says after discovering him in her hotel room. “You should see my balls,” he replies. “Then you’d be really impressed.” Not sure that quite works.

Luckily he’s better at his job than he is at repartee. He has made contact with a former Stasi officer (Eddie Marsan), who has memorised the contents of the microfilm. Lorraine will need to protect him but can she trust her fellow spies? The director David Leitch thinks not. He is fond of beginning scenes with the camera lying on its side before rotating it 90 degrees to an upright position. He could be trying to evoke visually the topsy-turvy world of international espionage. It’s as good a guess as any.

These pointless affectations would be easier to tolerate if he could shoot an action sequence fluidly. Mad Max: Fury Road proved that stunts will always be more effective if we can see they’re happening for real, but this is not a lesson that Atomic Blonde has taken on board. A high-speed chase is rendered fuzzy by the computer-generated imagery that allows the camera to perform impossible manoeuvres inside the car.

A protracted fight on a stairwell, which gives the impression of having been shot in one take but contains plenty of swish-pans in which cuts can be hidden, is gory without suggesting actual jeopardy. When Lorraine dispenses with six assailants using a saucepan, a hose and a refrigerator door, the whole under-lit episode feels painfully sluggish. No other director has choreographed a dust-up to the low-tempo sound of George Michael’s “Father Figure”, and now we know why.

Success for MI6 depends on getting the Stasi man safely out of town, but a more pressing race is the one between Theron and McAvoy, both likeable enough actors, to see which of them can squander the audience’s goodwill the fastest. Lorraine isn’t a person so much as an attitude. She goes ten rounds with suspects then soothes her bruises in ice-cube baths before hitting the vodka; it isn’t assassins she needs to worry about, it’s alcoholism and hypothermia. She comes close to caring for the female agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), with whom she shares a sex scene, but this isn’t progress for gay women in the action genre so much as an attempt to get fanboy hearts beating that bit faster. Even an actor as good as Theron can’t turn a set of cynical commercial considerations into a character. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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