The Surface Truth. Atomic Blonde opens fast and with a bullet to the head. It tells you what you’ll need to know visually and what to expect from the story. It’s 1989 and the Berlin wall is moments from collapsing. There’s an MI6 agent that’s just been murdered by a Russian spy. This MI6 agent was in possession of a list that contained information on all double agents working for both sides of the wall. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine, the MI6 agent that’s been tasked to investigate this murder, obtain the list and seek out a pesky known double agent named Satchel. From here the film takes us down a windy road of action and discovery. But what’s the movie really about?
Two Sides. Atomic Blonde explores ideas of duality and hidden truth. The film takes place during the Cold War when Berlin was still divided into the East and West, giving the audiences two separate backdrops. Lorraine must identify the infamous double agent Satchel, casting a fog of doubt over any character, their motivations or their loyalties. And throughout the film we see Lorraine split visually. At times she’s shown behind glass, in mirrors or reflections. Stories about duality are familiar in every medium, but still, warrant exploring due to their prevalence in our political and social climate. But while the film presents these ideas it fails to ever challenge us with them. Rather, it shows them as a necessity for the lives of the characters. The burden of these realities are little more than some inevitable hurdle that everyone must be willing to accept. The film could have used these ideas to elevate itself into something that asks real questions about the nature of truth and loyalty. When is a truth worth exposing and at what cost? What is the value of loyalty? Atomic Blonde seems content to show its awareness of the harsh realities that permeate the world of its characters, but it disappointedly plays it safe by remaining neutral and without curiosity.
Atomic Bland. Where Atomic Blonde fails and continues to frustrate the viewer is in its willingness to settle on mediocrity. The story weaves in and out of nightclubs, alleyways and apartment buildings. It moves through shadows and exposes information piece by piece. A real effort is made to unravel the story in an interesting way. But no effort is made to actually provide an interesting and worthwhile story to unravel. The characters jump through hoops and play their parts as spies and agents and double agents well enough, but no attention is given to them as real people. They’re distilled to the most basic formula, providing talented actors very little to work with. This even works against the film at times, making us question the emotional sincerity of a character. Beyond that, there are moments that simply defy logic. Characters inexplicably escape from what should be an inescapable situation. Characters have the ability to think two steps ahead of their counterparts but fail to avoid a nasty and fairly obvious fate. Even the visual style of the film, which jumps back and forth between oversaturated neons to muted blues, limits its own impact. It doesn’t provide any additional commentary or reason. As a result, the films visual style is at best contrived, and at worst ugly.
The Hidden Truth. Where Atomic Blonde succeeds is in its attempt to provide an entertaining and stylistic story. There are clever moments of reincorporation that open themselves up to the viewer on a handful of occasions. There is one exceptional action sequences that, though mostly subtle editing, appears to be one continuous shot. The film moves at an appropriate pace and has a wonderful 80s soundtrack. Sprinkle with a dash of Cold War paranoia and you’re left with two sides of a single movie. There is the side that leaves you wanting more, and the side that satisfies. Once the film ends you’ll need to reconcile these two halves, weighing them separately or as a whole. It’s an unevenness that stems from a widespread problem in Hollywood action films: settling. There was an effort put into the making of the film that cannot be denied, and the best elements of the movie are when those efforts shine through. But that level of attention and effort isn’t made throughout the film on an even scale. It’s hyper-focused on key moments that hope to make up for the rest of it. There are two sides to Atomic Blonde that aim to set itself apart, while also following the tropes and standards of the genre it lives in. Which side has a greater influence? According to the film itself, it doesn’t really matter.