Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) received some bad news a few days ago: one of her colleagues was found dead, murdered, and now she knows she must travel from London to Berlin to investigate and attain some form of justice. The main problem with that is the year is 1989 and the wall has not fallen yet; there imminent fall of Communism in Eastern Europe seems a possibility, but even Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, does not appear sure of what the future will hold for the Bloc at this point in time. However, Lorraine will know better than most, for she is an MI6 spy, and has been despatched by her bosses to return a list of top Western agents in the East - easier said than done...
The twenty-tens love affair with the eighties showed no signs of abating with Atomic Blonde, curious for even the nineties obsession with the seventies didn't seem to have lasted as long as this twenty-first century pop culture preoccupation. The music was a major aspect of that, and sure enough this movie had a soundtrack littered with eighties tunes, some more recognisable than others, and a few played to death whether on soundtracks or nostalgia documentaries or otherwise. Therefore we began with New Order's billionth royalty payment for Blue Monday and went straight into the curious revival of David Bowie's theme song for Cat People which had also been heard on the soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds.
After that, it was some of the Euro usual suspects – Der Kommissar, Major Tom, 99 Luftballons, and some seriously overplayed ditties from The Clash and Queen and that Bowie fellow again, though the cover of Ministry's Stigmata by Marilyn Manson was a strange misstep when the original sounded a lot harder. Maybe the producers wanted composer Tyler Bates to have something to do? Anyway, you had the idea, they had gone to town on creating the right tuneage for their chilly Eastern spy movie, which like a lot of Bond rip-offs began with a Bond stand-in being assassinated in a pre-credits sequence, as if that would blank out any comparisons we were about to make between this and the 007 franchise.
Some hope of that, though while some claimed Atomic Blonde sought to mix Bond with John Le Carré's espionage novels with their more realistic flavour, actually what this most resembled was a Harry Palmer movie had Harry been female and a lot more violent, complete with the convoluted plot. Unfortunately, in those sixties efforts Michael Caine had starred in there were rewards for keeping up with the twists and turns contained within, whereas here if you zoned out halfway through it would have very little effect on your overall enjoyment since Leitch had less of a handle on his storyline than he did its mechanism in getting to his actual interest, those muscular action sequences that punctuated the morose spy shenanigans, with one extended scene in particular rightly garnering praise.
That arrived just over three quarters of the way through the two-hour movie, where chainsmoking Lorraine and the defector (Eddie Marsan) she is supposed to be helping out of East Germany hit a spot of bother when someone blows their cover and a bunch of Communist goons are sent after them to ensure they get no further. Edited with special effects and stunt doubles to look like one continuous shot, it was a bravura example of why Leitch was making so many waves in the action genre after his cult hit John Wick, and if you did end up trying to pinpoint the edits rather than losing yourself in the sheer kinetics of the setpiece, that was not to diminish its achievement. It's just that elsewhere, the impression the Cold War had been an entirely pointless exercise in global politics was a fashionable but not very helpful take on a situation that was far more complex than Atomic Blonde was able to offer space to, and James McAvoy hamming it up as Lorraine's contact, Theron having a ten second sex romp with French agent Sofia Boutella, or Toby Jones and John Goodman as grand inquisitors did not quite justify its surprises, which seemed perfunctory. File under... nice try.