Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) wears her bruises as shamelessly as she wears designer clothes. She tapes a wire voice recorder under her clothes and on top of her lingerie, and the only item in her purse: a loaded gun. Broughton is not one to lose a fight — or lose, ever. As a target of other spies, her stoic gaze and guarded personality allow her to remove anyone who tries to stand in her way.
“Atomic Blonde” ‒ based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart — follows the inhumanly fierce Broughton as she is set out on a complicated mission that, unfortunately, the film never fully explains.
The film moves back and forth in time, to before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the subject of the Berlin Wall itself automatically address politics, one of the only things “Atomic Blonde” clearly establishes is that it’s not one of those movies in which spies are solving the messiness of politics behind the scenes. Since the storyline takes place in Berlin during the Cold War, it’s the era that plays a greater part in the characters’ intentions and motivations, rather than the events surrounding the Berlin Wall itself.
After the death of a fellow agent, Broughton is sent out on a mission to acquire a list of agents who are set to kill many more within Broughton’s agency of spies. In order to retrieve this list, she arrives in Berlin to find David Percival (James McAvoy), who will help guide her through the city’s social stresses and its community of undercover spies.
But how critical is this list? What are the stakes? The audience never really finds out. The list serves only as a cynical reminder that spies are selfish, backstabbing individuals, which is intended to distract us from a plot that lacks the ability to progress. In addition, the plot concludes by reaffirming the ways in which a spy’s life always comes full circle as a consequence of the often murderous, violent choices they make. This familiar concept is intended to bring a sense of direction to the film, but in the end, “Atomic Blonde” still fails to clarify the premise of the mission in the first place.
The film may lack a comprehensive, memorable plot, but for any first-time Charlize Theron movie viewer, Theron’s stunt and acting performances do not disappoint. While it’s exciting in and of itself to see a female lead in a major action film, Theron’s character transcends this achievement — Broughton is an incredibly well-crafted character, one with a defined arc that compliments her sheer power and strength.
A common pitfall for many female characters in action movies is the tendency for them to be presented as flawless, perfect individuals. However, “Atomic Blonde” is not afraid to address the psychological struggles Broughton faces under the pressure of survival. Both her flaws and her strengths as a character combine to create a dynamic character that’s both realistic and admirable.
Fortunately, “Atomic Blonde” at least does a phenomenal job providing a platform on which Charlize Theron’s character can thrive. Theron’s exceptional work in this film is often the only element that keeps viewers engaged ‒ it’s truly an intense, riveting comic-book action performance come to life. Nevertheless, despite all of its hype across various outlets, it disappoints viewers, because it never fully captures the sort of tangible storyline that could have brought the film home and do Theron’s character full justice.