Scarlett Johansson has been filling our void in the action-heroine department, but even she can’t seem to be a big enough name to get the female spy movie we’ve all been waiting for (Black Widow, anyone?) launched. Finally, after the recently long list of spy films featuring double-agent action goddesses, wise-cracking side-kicks and badass villains we’ve finally got our lead spy anti-heroine. Atomic Blonde backflips in with all its brutality, style and coolness. It isn’t everything we’ve been waiting for but it’s certainly promising.
Atomic Blonde is set against the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a cold-war thriller but with more color and fun than any Tinker Tailor or other John le Carré spy-novel could rival and, likely, much more violence. It’s framed with our protagonist, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), sitting in a small, enclosed room as she recounts the events of a Berlin mission gone awry. Her superiors: MI6 boss, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and the head of the CIA, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), watch back grimacing as the film cuts in and out of the mission being discussed to their, often biting, reactions.
Lorraine is ostensibly–or perhaps efficiently–an ice queen. The opening images carve her as such, as she breaks through an ice bath into the somehow colder blue harshness of cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s coloring. Even as she leans out of the bath, she takes the ice with her–dropping a few cubes into a small glass and pouring vodka after it. She could be an automaton–looking as though she does not feel the pain of the many bruises that outline her skin. This opening conveys for Lorraine, like many spies–man or woman–her sensuality, apathy and, most importantly, her durability and relentlessness.
As Lorraine tells her story we follow her to Berlin. She is sent after an undercover mole–also Lorraine’s ex-lover–is murdered on a similar mission. Once in Berlin she must retrieve “The List”, a series of names and other info that could reveal covert information. To give it a little kicker she is also charged with finding a double agent. Enter charming but smarmy David Percival (james McAvoy), another MI6 agent stationed in Berlin, who helps navigate Lorraine through the literal and metaphorical tunnels of the city. While there she falls into a hypnotic, sexual rendezvous with the suspicious, stalkerish but beautiful Delphine (Sofia Boutella) who knows a little bit more than she should.
“The List” is a trademark MacGuffin, something they put all their attention on as they fear it could fall into Soviet hands. However, like all films of its genre, it could never be so simple. Every character introduction poses a new threat. Everyone is attempting to pull a fast one on another. Enemy against agent, enemy and enemy, agent and agent–there is no safe place in Berlin whether they’re east or west of the wall.
The plot isn’t too complicated–or at least not as complicated as these spy films tend to be though screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) does his best to make it so. The film was adapted from the graphic novel The Coldest City and has been in development for over five years with Charlize Theron doing her best to bring it to life, acting as one of the producers while being attached as its star. Thanks to her proven worthiness with the action-power of Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road she was able to propel the film forward.
The film’s unnecessarily labyrinthine plot tells the viewer its sole interest is in entertaining and entertaining alone. There is nothing political here despite the backdrop. Somehow a paranoid Cold War thriller lacks genuine theme despite having a literal socio-political milestone as it’s parallel. It’s all context with no actual content–it speaks for itself and when it doesn’t the bright lights and city slickness come to the rescue.
The orb of light at the center of the film–Charlize Theron–shows us why she worked for half a decade to make this film. Her physicality and stunt work appears flawless. The poor woman broke two teeth while filming–she’s still having root canals to fix it. Despite Charlize’s months and months of training the intense precision and choreography of the fighting does not appear staged. The flames light in her eyes and she moves with it–her choices are impulsive, convincing you of her deadliness. We’re not stuck watching her remember her mark or next move. In the end the ice queen persona and the ferocity of her fighting come to the simple conclusion that she is, in fact, invulnerable–even when a pretty man or woman flashes a glance her way.
At her side is a very deep-diving McAvoy. His big blue eyes often make him the boy-next-door sweety, but his range has afforded him well the last few years with turns in Filth and Split attempting to show a more uncontrolled, selfish, untamed side. He brings his character more depth than Charlize–it’s easy to do when you don’t have to be all ice. He is both a help and a hindrance to Lorraine–her shadow and everyone else’s in almost every way. A trickster character in many forms but one that wants you to see it so badly you might mistake him for something other than what he is.
Despite the efforts of our two actors the real star is the cinematography. It’s like standing outside of a pawn shop in the rain for two hours and staring at a neon sign–but in the best way. The film uses locations all across Germany and Hungary that will make anyone swoon especially when accentuated by Jonathan Sela’s camera and color. As McAvoy’s Percival shouts in a brilliant fourth wall-breaking scene: “I fucking love Berlin!” I’ve got to agree, especially when it’s drenched in Sela’s frosty blues and harsh grays. Think dreary London but with better architecture and shiny 80s color compliments of pink and reds popping throughout.
The action sequences are amplified with the stunning backdrops. Sela’s camera holds back providing a full view of the action and the art direction. The camera swings and punches in and around as if it is as much a part of the pummeling as the characters themselves. Luckily this is achieved without the sensory-overload and confusion of the shakey-cam.
The heeled-heroine is real and it’s dangerous–this movie proves it. The clothes keep the stylish look going with epic costumes that are 80s without being silly and are surprisingly fashion forward. It’s hard to see Charlize Theron doing literally anything in this movie, wearing what she wears and not getting any attention.
Atomic Blonde has more than a fist-full to offer. It oozes sensuality but does not dwell on it. A queer sex scene is played much the same as the other scenes–stylish, suave and icy. Like the most stunning shots in the film, you’ll wish it had gone on longer. I know I do. In much the same way, the film has too much intrigue and not enough climax. A tease if there ever was one, but a fun one at that. It’s narratively coherent though not necessarily fresh. It’s paced mostly well until the many twists and turns in the latter half of the film overreach. It’s not witty enough but when it is, it really is. It’s a hard balance playing to the sardonic and keeping the coldness.
The film leans heavily on Charlize’s charisma, director David Leitch’s action chops and its killer soundtrack (David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Queen, George Michael, etc.) to keep the fuel going. Though it has more of a music video quality with it’s overstuffed soundtrack and flashy edits, it feels less self-important and self-satisfying than something like The Neon Demon (2016). It will satisfy the female-spy itch though will leave you wanting much more. With the success of this and the overflowing amount of female action talent it better not be that long. Dear god I hope it’s not that long.