There’s been some extensive discussion lately about how nostalgic media had gone too far with its Remember This? relics & references to 80s & 90s pop culture. Titles like Stranger Things & Ready Player One have proven popular with mass audiences, but have also drawn eyerolls from plenty critical outlets for their easy nostalgia bait. One of the more bizarre aspects of the Charlize Theron action vehicle Atomic Blonde is the way it hops on that same 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in the few days leading to it being torn down in 1989, the film’s pop culture references include things like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. Its blatant nostalgia for 80s pop culture should make it a widely accessible work, but there’s something off-kilter about its reference points that immediately single it out as a sore thumb outsider.
As nerdy as Atomic Blonde‘s 80s pop culture references can be, its basic pleasures are lizard brain simple. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. Its central mystery about double/triple agents jockeying to get the upper hand at the fever pitch of the Cold War is never nearly as significant as a David Bowie needledrop or a panning shot detailing Theron’s complicated underwear as she gears up for another day of crushing dude’s throats. Costume designer Cindy Evans deserves just as much credit as ex-stuntman director David Leitch or Theron herself for making the movie feel at all distinctive or memorable. The brutality of the action choreography (much of which Theron performed herself) & the immediate pleasures of the soundtrack (which includes acts as varied as New Order, Public Enemy, George Michael, Ministry, and Siouxsie & The Banshees) are entertaining enough as post-Tarantino/Scorsese pop cinema diversions. It’s the fashion design set against the Crimes of Passion-esque neon lighting that helps distinguish the film as its own idiosyncratic work, however, which should give you an idea of how surface level & visual its merits are on the whole.
Although the feeling wouldn’t last long, I was actually very much excited for Atomic Blonde‘s narrative structure when Theron’s ass-kicking protagonist was first introduced. She begins the film already icing her wounds in a freezing cold bath, recovering from a spy mission to the Eastern side of The Berlin Wall. This decision reminded me so much of the archetypal JCVD & Schwarzenegger action pics of the 80s & 90s, which usually introduce the hero at the tail end of one adventure before beginning the one that will command the plot. Instead, this opening is soon revealed to be a feature-length flashback, wherein the story is told in an investigative interview with British & American intelligence agencies. A needlessly complicated plot about double agent assassinations & a McGuffin referenced to as The List gradually emerges, but is told in such sweeping, summarizing swaths that any in-the-moment suspense over the central mystery is left muted at best, incomprehensible at worst. Instead of trying to figure out which of her collaborators has sold her out to the KGB (James McAcoy? John Goodman? Toby Jones?), the audience is better off letting go of narrative completely & indulging in the image of Theron kicking ass to kick-ass synthpop. The flashback structure undercuts a lot of the immediacy of that simple pleasure (with the major exception of an extended stairwell sequence that wisely slows down to allow the sheer brutality to fully sink in), but the strengths of the fashion design, the soundtrack curation, and Theron’s physical presence are enough for the film to persevere.
Atomic Blonde‘s origins as a graphic novel adaptation and a pet project from one of the minds behind the John Wick franchise are blatantly apparent. Its reliance on the slickness of its imagery and the Hey Remember This? quality of its off-kilter 80s nostalgia are much more firmly in its wheelhouse than the complex double/triple crossings of its Gotcha! mystery plot. Now that Theron’s rock solid protagonist had emerged as a high fashion, animalistically brutal James Bond type, despite the lackluster plot that surrounded her, the world is primed for that Just Another Adventure, JCVD-style sequel. She’s got a killer look, a signature drink (Stoli on the rocks), an established bisexual flair for bedding other agents, and, most importantly, is damn convincing as a physical threat to faceless baddies. Since the movie leaves off at the dawn of the 1990s, she even has a whole new era of odd duck nostalgia bait to milk on her next mission. I enjoyed Atomic Blonde for what it is, but it has some glaring narrative issues I feel could easily be course-corrected in an Atomic Blonde 2. I fear this picture’s box office returns will be too slight to generate a sequel, but at least its sense of fashion has left us with a killer lookbook as consolation.