Warning: deep plot exploration (but only mild spoilers) below
The plot of Atomic Blonde involves The List, a microchip (?) hidden inside of a watch that contains the name and identity of every British MI6 agent working on both sides of the Berlin Wall during the waning days of the Cold War. It also has a special bonus: the identity of Satchel, a British double agent who has been selling secrets to the Russians.
Since MI6 already know the names of their agents, and the Russians know who Satchel is, the purpose of The List, and who put it together, isn’t exactly clear.
At the start of the film, The List has found it’s way into the hands of James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), an MI6 agent who has retrieved it from Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), an East German Stasi agent who came into possession of it for undisclosed (and, probably, highly illogical) reasons.
Gasciogne the MI6 agent, you imagine, would want to immediately uncover the identity of Satchel and destroy The List to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Of course, that’s exactly what happens, and in the first scene of Atomic Blonde The List has now come into the possession of the Russians in the form of KGB operative Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson).
This means, in the words of CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), that the “Cold War will be prolonged for another 40 years”, or something like that, though exactly why KGB knowledge of MI6 agents would lead to extra Cold War while the Berlin Wall is literally crumbling around them escapes me.
Nevertheless, Kurzfeld and MI6 heads Gray (Toby Jones) and “C” (James Faulkner) devise a plan to get The List back from the Russians, even though at this point they must figure the cat is out of the bag. Luckily for them, Bakhtin has gone rogue and is attempting to sell The List to the highest bidder, information they do not know.
At some point, The List falls into the hands of rogue MI6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who intends, I think, to give it to Russian arms dealer (?) Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Møller). But instead of just giving it to the Russians, he meets with them first to talk about giving it to them, so he can be photographed in collusion with them while The List is still “safe”.
By this point, The List has now passed through at least five hands (including the Watchmaker, played by Til Schweiger), any of whom could have made a copy, or taken relevant information out of it. And that’s exactly what happens with Spyglass, who claims to have memorized The List, but doesn’t out Satchel as the British double agent and indeed cooperates with the only two characters who could be Satchel.
This leads to a ridiculous sequence where the Russians, who logically want the information that Spyglass has, are attempting to kill him (huh?), while MI6, who would logically want him and his intel dead, are attempting to save him by smuggling him out of East Germany (why?)
And yet this is the best scene in the movie, because it features a wonderfully choreographed, single-take 10-minute fight scene during which Charlize Theron’s MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton brutally kicks all kind of butt.
Oh yes, Charlize Theron is in this movie, as the titular Atomic Blonde. I failed to mention her earlier because while in almost every scene, her character completely incidental to the plot of the film. She smokes, drinks vodka on the rocks, takes a baths full of ice cubes, looks at her bloodied face in the mirror, has an explicit tryst with a French agent played by Sofia Boutella, and goes from point A to point B while having vague conversations with the rest of the players and generally getting nowhere with regards to The List.
But she’s really, really good in that one 10-minute fight scene.
Atomic Blonde is bloody and brutal, features some excellent ’80s Berlin atmosphere (with Budapest filling in for the Cold War capital), a great German pop-techno soundtrack, and yeah, that one action scene is terrific.
The setting, tone, neon-drenched style and brief lesbian elements all evoked memories of the criminally underseen sci-fi classic Liquid Sky for me, which is only a good thing.
But a good 90 minutes of this movie is the worst kind of uninvolving plot exposition, presented in such vague fashion I’m still not sure exactly what happened, or why. It’s a confounding, confusing drag, a comic strip version of Le Carre without a single character or even story outcome to root for. Everyone either is, or could be, a double (triple!) agent.
This is the kind of movie that can end with not one, but two meaningless twist endings, the significance of both lost on the audience. But by that time, we no longer care, anyway.