Every so often a movie comes along that rewrites the rule-book for the Hollywood blockbuster, sending out tonal and stylistic ripples for years to come. There was Die Hard with its dry, flawed protagonist John McClane, the Bourne series’ perpetual-motion shaky-cam, the Matrix’s use of bullet time. And in 2014 there was John Wick.
Combining elements of Hong Kong revenge drama, French neo-noir and classic grindhouse with a distinctive, neon-soaked aesthetic and crunchy, comic-book violence, it was a shot in the arm for the action movie. Co-director David Leitch’s follow-up, Atomic Blonde, keeps the ice-cool visuals and breathtakingly choreographed fight sequences, but swaps out the reductio ad absurdum plot (a man taking revenge for the death of his dog) with a narrative so twisty that it eventually becomes inextricably knotted. It’s a weaker film as a result.
Set in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the wall, it follows Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, who sounds like a middle manager in a call-centre but is in fact an MI6 super-spy. Her handlers give her a long shopping list: investigate a death; retrieve a stolen list of double agents; rein in an operative who’s “gone feral”; and track down a rogue spy known as Satchel. It’s all-but impossible to follow, especially with the distraction of a thumping soundtrack, strobe lighting and the outbreak of a fight every couple of minutes. And when you’re not entirely sure what the stakes are, it’s hard to care about them.
While Lorraine is a physically strong female lead, Atomic Blonde doesn’t feel particularly empowering, even despite a rather wonderful Wonder Woman homage involving a rubber hose. Leitch’s film has a somewhat queasy relationship with its female characters, who are all hot and often naked. Lorraine likes to have sex with girls, but these scenes are so male-gazey they feel about as progressive as the “lesbians” tab on Pornhub.
Still, if you treat it as a purely sensory spectacle, there’s a lot to like. The soundtrack is exceptional, beginning with a fantastic rendition of New Order’s Blue Monday and maintaining that level throughout. Late-80s Berlin is plausibly bleak and grimy. The acting is generally brilliant, with Theron making for a formidable, magnetic lead, and James McAvoy a solid choice for hard-drinking agent David Percival. There are also great turns from character actors including Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones and John Goodman.
There’s a scene towards the end in which Broughton fights off yet another roomful of goons. She steals a gun, shoots one in the head and his brains splatter over the cupid’s bow lips on a giant photograph hanging on the wall. It’s an exquisitely filmed piece of ultra-violence, and the perfect snapshot of a post-John Wick action movie.
First published in City A.M.