Overlong "Atomic Blonde" Lands Only A Few Punches

Action movies are allowed to be one-note. With the focus on fighting or shooting or chasing or, preferably, all of the above, textured storytelling can take a back seat. What an action movie isn’t allowed to be: dull. Charlize Theron vehicle “Atomic Blonde” is just that for the majority of its 115-minute running time, skimping on action in favor of an arthritic spy yarn whose sputtering of narrative exhaust blankets its real but infrequent thrills. When things get moving, the film is a rush. But things move rarely in “Atomic Blonde,” leaving “John Wick” co-director David Leitch’s solo debut to float away into the action movie ether.

Good female-led actioners are an important but uncommon part of Hollywood history. Before Gal Gadot’s recent turn as the title character in “Wonder Woman,” there was Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, Uma Thurman’s Bride, and not a whole lot else, lest Paul W.S. Anderson be given even an ounce of credit for his reviled “Resident Evil” series. The world of female-driven cinema is so insular that this summer’s two female-based action offerings are only one degree removed. “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins directed Charlize Theron to her Best Actress Oscar for “Monster” in 2003.

Theron has been a capable lead for at least as long, failing to spin an action franchise out of 2005’s “Aeon Flux” but beating Tinseltown’s typical cocktail of ageism and sexism and maintaining significant star power into her 40s. “Atomic Blonde” comes as the perfect opportunity to reestablish her might, a la Keanu Reeves in “John Wick.” But “John Wick: Chapter 2” made a strong case for Chad Stahelski of the original film’s Stahelski-Leitch team as the one to follow. As seen here, Leitch isn’t nearly as imaginative. He and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad drag their star down with sluggish pacing, insipid musical choices, and – plain and simple – not enough mayhem.

Based on 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, the Cold War-set story is more than a little familiar, evoking Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible,” among other features.

Berlin, 1989, just before the collapse of the Wall. A KGB agent kills an MI6 agent over a list of active Soviet spies, leading MI6 ass-kicker Lorraine Broughton (Theron) on a wild goose chase to retrieve the list. With the assistance of a loopy field agent named David Percival (James McAvoy), Broughton finds herself entangled in a web of sex, violence, and pop music, coming to head in the form of a dizzying apartment-set fight sequence and subsequent vehicular chase that rivals the “John Wick” films for visceral ingenuity.

If only the rest of the movie weren’t so sluggish.

Instead of telling the story in real time, the screenplay sees Broughton recount her version of events to an MI6 officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (John Goodman). These scenes are good for allowing Leitch to begin his film with an already badly bruised heroine, which lends a serious amount of intrigue to the character. But otherwise, it compounds the overlong running time and leads to a late-game twist that tests the outer limits of suspension of disbelief.

Some of “Atomic Blonde” is the sex-soaked actioner promised by its trailers – Sofia Boutella’s fiery turn as an amorous French agent is all that and more – but too much of the picture gets bogged down in the kind of pretzel spy logic that no one goes to shoot-em-ups for. Check in for the impressive bursts of violence but be prepared for a surplus of downtime – a near death sentence for a movie called “Atomic Blonde.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 28, 2017
Studio: Focus Features
Director: David Leitch
Screenwriter: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)