It certainly does have a lot of story, though, for good or for bad. And it might as well: the film is about being dumped in the boiling cesspool of Berlin in the ten days before the demolition of the Berlin Wall began on 9 November, 1989. And I said just a moment ago that the film doesn't care about theme, but maybe that's it right there: it's a story about Western and Soviet spies jealously guarding their fiefdoms from the other side and their own allies, killing and bludgeoning each other over scraps of ideological real estate that were mere days away from losing their value. The relentlessly, unnecessarily complicated story is a part of that, perhaps: it reflects and reiterates the bald existential confusion of the players involved, players whose entire professions and identities rely on the conditions of the Cold War that were coming to a close. It's complicated and empty because complicated emptiness is what the characters have willingly committed themselves to (I think that's also the explanation for the apparently redundant frame narrative: people like these must narrativise their own lives to give them purpose).
But mostly, it's all about glassy, sleek surfaces, pitted with filth and corrosion. More than anything, it's a film about "Berlin" - not the historic and contemporary German city, but the concept of that city that lives on in popular culture as a world capitol for sex, music, and nightclubs that have all been honed into mechanical inhumanity through chilly Germanic efficiency. It is the Berlin of a thousand spy novels and films; the Berlin of Kraftwerk and the Ufo club; the Berlin of David Bowie's late-'70s albums Low, "Heroes", and Lodger, and what an outstanding non-coincidence it is that Atomic Blonde's amply-stocked soundtrack opens and closes with Bowie singles ("Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" and "Under Pressure", neither of them from the Berlin trilogy, but the point still very much stands). It's a Berlin that can be very effectively communicated by close-ups on the severe stiletto boots that costume designer Cindy Evans has placed on the feet of star Charlize Theron, in the role of the titular blonde. That's the kind of movie we're talking about: one where it makes more sense to mention the costume designer before any of the actors, the writer, or even the director, because it kind of feels like the costume designer is more responsible for capturing the essence of what's going on.
And what's wrong with that, says I. The costumes in Atomic Blonde are fucking fantastic, they place in not just a specific time and place, but a specific mindset and attitude about that place, and the film is infinitely more invested in operating at the level of attitude than just about any other level. One major character's entire arc is built around the notion that Berlin is a kind of psychic event, one that consumes the individual identity and turns it into something else, and certainly every aesthetic choice rotates around confirming the notion of that city, in the desperate breakdown of the Cold War, as a techno-punk hellhole and wonderland. Atomic Blonde is like a John Le Carré novel adapted by Alex Cox, though of course it's none of those things. It's adapted from a graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart; I haven't read it. And it's directed by David Leitch, the officially uncredited half of the John Wick directing duo, which makes perfect sense - Atomic Blonde isn't the overt evolution of John Wick's sensibility that John Wick: Chapter 2 was, but it is an evolution, one that takes us far enough from John Wick: Chapter 2 that we've witnessed something like a speciation event take place (don't ask me to carry this thought any further, it's going to require more viewings of both films). Closely related species, though. The films are all co-productions with 87Eleven Action Design, which as far as I'm concerned has solidified itself in 2017 as one of the great treasures of American cinema.
At any rate, Atomic Blonde draws from John Wick an approach to using style as character element, insofar as the characters who exist in a movie with particular aesthetics, and who move according to a certain discipline of action choreography, are probably hemmed in by a certain set of psychological constraints. Atomic Blonde is, at least, more character-driven than 87Eleven's other films, which is an entirely relatively claim to make, but I'm comfortable enough making it. We don't learn much at all about Theron's Lorraine Broughton, if that is her name, and virtually all we learn is of a strictly denotative quality - she is working for MI6, she is bisexual, she speaks with a peculiarly awful British accent that sounds like she picked it up somewhere in South Africa.
But we do start to share space with her moment-by-moment feelings, more so than we ever do with John Wick. We feel her irritable frustration at David Percival (James McAvoy), MI6's man in Berlin, whom she suspects, and we know damn well, is stonewalling her attempts to find the MacGuffin (it's a list with the name of every active spy in the Soviet sphere of influence); we share in her beaten-up weariness at the end of an action setpiece that takes place up and down a stairwell in a wretched East Berlin apartment building, and one digitally stitched-together take. For even if we're not dripping blood the way she is at the end (always have to give a nod to a film that remembers that hand-to-hand combat is still fucking brutal and exhausting even for the winner), there's still a certain perceptual fatigue that comes from such a goddamn long take, one that keeps feeding us new information about space and the participants of the fight - and keeps returning to Eddie Marsan, as defector "Spyglass", taping up a bullet wound in his stomach, a grace note that's surely Leitch's best directorial grace note - so it's as much work to watch as it is fun.
And we're right there alongside her as she exults in the filthy, glorious energy of divided Berlin at its most ragged and hedonistic. A substantial amount of the film involves nothing but watching Theron walking as this or that bit of '80s music blares out briefly on the soundtrack, generally before being chopped off by the sudden appearance of violence, and this is the kind of film where walking to music looks like the most fucking amazing thing you could possibly do. Though neither you nor I would have the benefit of Theron's imposing screen presence - she looms in this movie - or the cool chic of her outfits, and would thus undoubtedly be less amazing.
The film is, at any rate, besotted with the '80s, besotted with its grotty fairy tale version of Berlin: everything down to the spray-paint location cards evokes an urban '80s punk vibe, and even the damn subtitles try to evoke a spirit of the age (they've been designed to have that slightly transparent, chalky look of subtitles from before the digital age; more '70s than '80s, if you asked me, but it's still a thing to note). The illusion is broken by a bit by Jonathan Sela's cinematography, which includes a lot of obviously digital color correction, not to mention the obviously CGI cityscapes, but the film is otherwise so unbelievably gorgeous that I kind of don't mind, with an icy-blue palette that reflects the cold psychology of the spies involved, and searing magenta interruptions that reflect nothing in particular other than being goddamn pretty, and when it's this goddamn pretty, that's sufficient.
Quite a wonderfully stylish return to a hellish period of time, safely transformed into sleek cinematic entertainment; and yet it retains just enough sense of the confusion and chaos of the world in the death throes of the Cold War that it's not entirely insubstantial. It boasts some outrageously good fight scenes - John Wick: Chapter 2 has set the bar too high for any 2017 film to beat it, but this is a hugely gratifying first runner-up, with its relatively small number of fight scenes counting for an awful lot. We get just enough of a sense of Lorraine as a profoundly capable, dangerous human being, in a profoundly dangerous environment to not have to dwell on it, but enough that it hangs over all of the talky plot scenes.
At any rate, I left the thing feeling extravagantly jazzed up. Style over substance, 100% yes - but it's style that works, as in all of the lingering glamorous close-ups of Theron's heavily shadowed eyes - it is a film that makes great tactical use of close-ups - to both impress upon us the mere fact that Theron is one of the most beautiful women alive, and also that her character is a hunted, haunted woman, deeply introspective in ways that wouldn't be intuitively obvious. And style that constantly impresses upon us the allure of Cold War Berlin, as well as the structural sickness covering that city like a shroud. Nothing profound here, nothing that will challenge the way you think about humanity or any such thing, but it is intoxicating, pleasurable, and just nasty enough in its implications that you can feel it in your gut even as the beauty, cool, and sexiness are more obviously washing over you.