Somewhere in the middle of Atomic Blonde, the setting of one of the several action sequences that stage brutal fisticuffs between our heroine-of-sorts and the primary antagonist's henchman happens to be a restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (perhaps, given the year in which this film takes place, a tenth-anniversary celebration). The reference is equally clever (Both films set genre elements against a backdrop of political angst) and confounding (This film offers no reason to reference the 1979 one beyond that general connection). It ends up summarizing more about the movie at hand than expected.
That is because the film's backdrop of political angst, as with everything else here, is a distraction from everything else here. It's a movie that confronts quite a lot for a slam-bang, no-frills action spectacle, although perhaps that is because Kurt Johnstad's screenplay is adapted from a graphic novel series by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart that posited a world in which the tearing-down of the wall between East Berlin and its western counterpart was a few days or weeks removed from its original date of November 9, 1989 (The timeline, thanks to Johnstad's mishandling of a framing device, is a bit murky).
The plot is fairly typical of the Cold War crime subgenre, regarding misdirection and classified identities, but intriguing enough: In the present setting of the framing device, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, a stoic and solid presence) is brought in for questioning by her superior officer in British intelligence (played by Toby Jones, whose character's growing bafflement gets funnier and funnier) and a head official of the C.I.A. (played by John Goodman). A British undercover agent has been killed, the list of other agents has been stolen, and no one knows whom to trust.
In the past, Broughton is paired with David Percival (James McAvoy), the rambunctious head of the East Berlin field office, to retrieve the list at any cost. This leads Broughton on various excursions through the streets of Berlin. She protects the Stasi officer (played by Eddie Marsan) in whose possession the list currently resides (or does it?), which means that those sequences of intense and bloody combat kick in whenever Johnstad needs them to. Director David Leitch stages them as comprehensively exhausting, with one extended fight and ensuing car chase presented as a single take. It's impressive stuff, and the film comes to life in these sequences.
Unfortunately, they also suffer the problem of every other, disparate element that is present, which is to say that the film has a focus issue. The plot exists to bridge gaps between the action sequences, which punctuate the points in the plot that the film also considers gravely important. That means that the points of the plot suffer a form of impotence, with one major revelation being both jarring and inconsequential. The film's confrontation of the politics of the region, with news broadcasts of the Berlin wall's deconstruction playing in the background of one scene in which Broughton learns of a crucial character's allegiances, is, as a result, a disruption of the proceedings. Atomic Blonde is three movies that might be pretty good on their own but suffer when spliced together in this way.
Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (C), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Moller (Aleksander Brymovich), Bill Skarsgard (Merkel), Johannes Johannesson (Yuri Bakhtin), Til Schweiger (Watchmaker), Sam Hargrave (James Gasciogne).
Directed by David Leitsch and written by Kurt Johnstad, based on the Oni Press graphic novel series The Coldest City written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart.
Rated R (violence, language, sexuality/nudity).
Released on July 28, 2017.