If you are in the mood for a two-hour music video featuring candy-colored lighting, dramatic costuming, and Charlize Theron’s upper lip, you’re in luck: “Atomic Blonde” is happy to provide. If you’re looking for a master class in gloriously choreographed and photographed hand-to-hand combat, “Atomic Blonde” is your girl. If you want a functional spy thriller? Better look for a brunette. (I hear Jason Bourne is easy.)
“Atomic Blonde” passes the distraction test easily—within the first three minutes, in which a mutilated Charlize Theron rises naked from a tubful of ice cubes, I’d shed the looming specter of my car’s upcoming brake job—but runs into trouble once it tries to cobble together a plot. This is the kind of spy movie in which the announcement of a character always comes with a close-focus shot of a manila folder thwapping onto a table, complete with black-and-white surveillance photos paper-clipped to the inside cover and a helpful voiceover providing exposition. “Lorraine Broughton,” a clipped British voice tells us as we study footage of Charlize Theron, is an elite MI6 agent skilled in hand-to-hand combat, escape, all the spyish arts. “She’ll need every single one of them on this mission,” the voice continued, and I deflated a bit: nothing is less exciting than someone in a movie telling you how excited you should be.
Unfortunately, the trend continues: the movie introduces its MacGuffin (a list of “every agent we have” embedded in the guts of a flashy watch), then spends a truly unforgiveable amount of time trying to convince us that a list of spies we’ve never met and don’t care about is incredibly important. And that a flashy watch is not a stupid place to put a complete list of MI6’s staff. The movie’s creators are so concerned that we take the watch-list (get it?) seriously that they send John Goodman in to remind Lorraine of its importance, a few days into her mission. “If that list gets out, lots and lots of good, hard-working people are going to die,” he informs her soberly, but where are these people? So far, the movie has only introduced us to Lorraine, who can coordinate stilettos with gloves and who can also stab you to death with said stilettos, and to David Percival (James McAvoy), who can smuggle items underneath the Berlin Wall and who, as a man, can wear a fur coat, but who otherwise fails to inspire confidence. The movie also introduces us in rapid succession to a panoply of bearded East and West German operatives, then assumes we can remember all their names, faces, and allegiances as we flash forwards to Lorraine’s mission debriefing. Suddenly I needed a manila folder—I was in the second act, and I was lost. Was that guy Stasi? Was he the same one as before? Why is Lorraine suddenly speaking Swedish? Didn’t she kill that bearded guy already?
Without a flow chart, the movie is incomprehensible, but the plot’s opacity isn’t enough to keep us from noticing what’s silly here: a flashmob, with props, that Lorraine coordinates in three minutes prior to the advent of cell phones in the middle of an East German riot; Machiavelli’s “The Prince” all but spotlit on the bookshelf of a character we’re meant to mistrust; a tunnel you could drive a Yugo through, underneath the Berlin Wall. Nothing about “Atomic Blonde” is believable, much less tense, but all this silliness does free you to appreciate the opulent costumes on display. Charlize Theron, bless her, changes outfits about every fifty-three seconds, and the moviemakers, bless them, always give us a slow toe-to-head shot to absorb the billowing pant legs; structured jackets; pale yellow plastic sunglasses; corsets worn over shirts. Not since Rene Russo single-leggedly resurrected garters in “The Thomas Crown Affair” has there been a wardrobe so glorious, or so lusciously photographed: a softly lit fight sequence in which Theron, wearing a white plastic trenchcoat, wraps a yellow extension cord around herself like a vaquero managing his spare lasso, could easily double as a spread for “Vogue”, and probably did. Product placement is rampant here, not least from the cigarette industry, who probably figured that with oranger things on everyone’s mind this year, no one would notice the resurgence of movie stars posing sexily while smoking and ordering Stolichnaya (the movie’s other apparent sponsor). Everything and everyone is beautiful in the 1989 of “Atomic Blonde”; as a logic-free place to escape to for two hours, you could do much worse. Try 2017.