What's the most damning thing you can say about a movie? That its actors don't behave credibly. That it has been miscast? That its plot wobbles? That its dialogue sounds lame and wooden? That it displays too little visual imagination?
All of those are unfortunate missteps, but only one of them (the one about a story made overly complex by a needlessly fragmented narrative) applies to Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron's plunge into the world of movies based on graphic novels.
The damning sum total of the movie's plot intricacies and icy stylizations, at least for me, is that I didn't much care about the outcome of a story set in Berlin in 1989, a time when the wall separating East and West Germany is about to topple and spies on both sides are beginning to wonder about their role in a post-Cold War world.
This sounds like John Le Carre territory, but Atomic Blonde, which springs from a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and has been directed by David Leitch, wallows in attitude and style in ways that create little by way of emotional involvement.
For all its hyper activity, the movie often feels exhausted, perhaps because it taps into an already mined thematic vein in which old antagonisms are evaporating like morning mist exposed to new sun.
Theron's performance as the self-possessed Lorraine Broughton embodies nearly everything you need to know about Atomic Blonde. A cooly efficient MI-6 agent, Lorraine arrives in Berlin to obtain a list of western spies a wannabe Stasi defector (Eddie Marsan) has offered to sell before it reaches Soviet hands.
Ably demonstrating her mastery of martial arts choreography (think Hong Kong movies of a couple of decades back), Theron plays a spy so cool she takes ice baths. Lorraine's blonde hair frames the countenance of a character who has been trained to turn her face into a mask. It's possible that Lorraine has worn her spy mask so long, it has become real.
Lorraine is bruised and bloodied by fights, but the bruises feel like physical post-it notes, self-conscious attempts to add realism to an overall atmosphere rich in faux trappings. Watch out for Lorraine's high heels.
Lorraine is asked to work with another British agent, James McAvoy's Percival. Percival, who has plied his trade in Berlin for some time, claims to know everything about this increasingly corrupted environment.
With his hair cut short, McAvoy offers plenty of scenery-chewing mania, but a framing device adds to the feeling of a mishmash unified only by style and attitude. Intermittent breaks in the action arrive when Lorraine is debriefed by an MI-6 desk jockey (a dyspeptic-looking Toby Jones) and a CIA operative (a bearded John Goodman).
Sofia Boutella portrays a French spy who has a sexual encounter with Theron's character. Does it mean anything? Or is it just a way for the filmmakers to add an LGBT twist to a story that wants to be hip, which -- in this case -- requires a bit of prurient seasoning?
Protracted and built around the grunting exhaustion of the protagonist and her enemies, a late-picture fight scene packs some wallop, as does a car chase in which the crunch of colliding metal smashes against your ear drums. Moreover, the movie's opening scenes are cool enough to feel like exercising without breaking a sweat.
But for all Theron's punches, kicks and icy stares, the movie's flirtation with ideas remains unconsummated. Besides, how many stylistic trump cards can one movie play before you start wondering whether it has anything else in its deck? For me, so many that I eventually stopped caring what Atomic Blonde might deal next.