Imagine the sprawling & cynical political bite of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy filtered through the pulpy hyper-reality of the John Wick movies and starring Charlize Theron as James Bond: that is Atomic Blonde.
The team behind some of the best action sequences in recent memory, to say nothing of their own home-grown productions John Wick 1 & 2, 87Eleven Action Design is back. Now they’ve come to gift us a new action hero in Theron’s “Lorraine Broughton,” a British MI6 agent & assassin in this slick, relentlessly stylish and arguably needlessly convoluted espionage thriller. And while the credentials of those involved (including John Wick co-director David Leitch in his 1st solo directorial effort) guarantee you top shelf action anchored by a tenacious movie star, there’s surprisingly a lot more interesting matters swimming on Atomic Blonde’s impeccably crafted surface.
Let’s get the best part out of the way: Charlize Theron. The Keanu Reeves as John Wick comparisons are inevitable but a much stronger comparison would be Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Like Craig’s deadly, layered but still effortlessly cool take on the famous fictional spy, Theron and her embodiment of Lorrain Broughton is what elevates Atomic Blonde’s coquettish cleverness into a kind of pulpy insight. Like Bond, Broughton’s default mode is a highly mannered level of sophistication and anti-authoritative cheekiness and Theron is able to imbue that with an added emotional depth and vulnerability, perhaps even melancholy & anger. Atomic Blonde follows Theron’s Broughton as she is roped into retrieving a coveted list of undercover operatives in 1989 Berlin, Germany just days before the Cold War comes to an end and the Berlin Wall dividing the nation between the Soviet Union and the West is about to come crumbing down. Amidst all this, the American CIA, the British MI6 and the Russian/Soviet KGB cling to this status quo of deception and realpolitik even as the world as they’ve grown accustomed to being is about to change. Caught in the middle is Lorraine, a veteran spy and assassin who both enjoys her work but is growing wary of the toll it is taking on her physically, emotionally and her very identity.
There’s simply no understating just how remarkable Theron is as Lorrain Broughton even if the character herself is rather archetypal for the “girls with guns” subgenre. Even if gender swapping the James Bond type is somewhat subversive, it’s still an archetype. If there was any doubt regarding Theron’s skill with the nuances of physical performance, one need only point to her take on Lorraine Broughton’s subtle body language and shifting stares. Even the way she fights & shoots communicates to us her thoughts and character. Theron really gets you to buy into Broughton as perhaps the next action hero we know by name. And when I say gender swapping the James Bond type is subversive I mean that the movie and Theron really plays into Broughton as a woman. She has to play things differently from her make counterparts. She must consistently keep a guard up, even if it’s a bit of a façade, since she enters every situation knowing those surrounding her will look and think of her on certain terms, perhaps even take advantage of her. Many action fans, like myself were already sold on this movie because it was marketed as a “Lady” John Wick from the makers of that movie. However, the real draw for this is Theron herself.
Not that the movie surrounding her is any less engaging. Atomic Blonde, much like this year’s Baby Driver, is a stylized and soundtrack driven action movie/music video hybrid where the rhythm and story of the movie are in sync to the needle drops. And yet somehow the trick is used more effectively here, even in scenes where dialogue & plot outwear their welcome. Former stuntman & coordinator/choreographer Leitch dares you to dig into the meaning of a movie with an on-the-nose ’80s soundtrack that everything from Nena’s “99 Luftballons” to New Order’s “Blue Monday.” It toes the line between cheesy and cheeky in that Atomic Blonde has an air of self-aware artifice & role playing, intrinsically tied to its themes & ideas, oddly enough.
It is important to know the film takes place at the end of the Cold War. Specifically it is during the first week of November, 1989, mere days before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sociopolitical landscape of the world would irrevocably change forever. In the heyday of the Cold War the world was divided, perhaps even fractured between East and West, the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. This was a conflict fought by increasingly convoluted clandestine operations carried out by a vast interconnected network of spies and informants to say nothing of the top brass. We know from the history books, how the story ends. However our cast doesn’t. To them the world of spies, intrigue, double agents, shaky alliances and rivalries between agents and governments is about to crash down with the Berlin Wall. Everyone in this movie from Lorraine to her “superiors” to her contacts has gotten so used to the way things worked during the Cold War that some just don’t see a future without it. One character sums it up: “there’s only one question left to ask: Who won, and what was the f***ing game anyway?” Like John Le Carre novels, Atomic Blonde (and the comic it’s based on, The Coldest City) has a cynical commentary woven inextricably from its purposefully twisty and overwritten narrative.
That’s the sort of mode of filmmaking 87Eleven seems to be carving a niche for. Like the 2 John Wick movies or their 1st producorial effort, the 2012 Jason Statham vehicle Safe, they’ve not only been putting together some of the best action scenes of our time (and we’ll get to Atomic Blonde’s in a bit) they’ve been taking drive-in exploitation premises and imbuing them with an arthouse deconstruction. Atomic Blonde juggles aesthetic cues and academic or literary allusions with the dexterity that its lead utilizes when taking down multiple opponents. Atomic Blonde will be a movie accused of “style over substance” but that’s missing the point of this mode of filmmaking. Spy thrillers are very much about atmosphere with deliberate pacing and sometimes strangely unreal dialogue & plotting. More than that, the action movie genre as a whole is where the style *is* the substance, where reality is heightened constantly and catharsis comes at the end of a fist, car chase or gun barrel. Atomic Blonde is the kind of action movie that so morphs subtext into text constantly and you don’t need to look too hard to see that wink at the audience they’re making.
If that sensuous wink the film is making at you doesn’t stir something in you, perhaps the movie’s abundance in some truly sublime production and costume design might. This is one gorgeous looking movie giving us 80s new wave chic in a way that feels at once transportive but also strangely anachronistic. Broughton’s ensemble is enough to get you to want to read as many fashion magazines alone. I expect this movie will inspire many “lewks” as it were. Perfect for a movie where role playing and nostalgia are core. The world of Atomic Blonde’s late Cold War Berlin is an intricately detailed anarcho-punk maze of neon labyrinths. It almost feels like a New Wave spin on “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (which itself is alluded to in the movie) an alien-like area where within rubble of modern society lies coveted yet arbitrary remnants from a forgotten or lost time being fought over. It’s the perfect battleground for a spy flick that’s ultimately about a woman putting up with old, out of touch men still clinging to power and a status quo that’s about to come to a head. And the cast inhabiting this world and tale let it truly come alive.
Supporting Theron’s character comes an unhinged James McAvoy channeling a cockney take on Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. He plays MI6’s Berlin section chief but having been stationed there so long amidst the chaos of the Cold War has given into fatalistic hedonism. Some may enjoy McAvoy’s Wildman performance but there are times where he feels ripped from another movie all together and veers right up against grating akin to Jared Leto’s miscalculated turn as The Joker in Suicide Squad. Still, that character’s incendiary nature provides an obvious foil to Theron’s more cool and collected character. Sofia Boutella fares much better as Delphine Lasalle, Broughton’s French counterpart and her love interest for this film. You read that right, Broughton even gets to have her very own Bond Girl. Boutella, the Algerian–French dancer, model, and actress delivers a performance worthy of the femme fatale moniker and is effortlessly sensual and unmistakably femme. Her scenes opposite Theron definitely veer into the “male gaze” territory and that’s definitely a byproduct of the movie’s embrace of Bond Movie tropes but neither of these women are any less that fully fledged characters with a real sense of agency. Their much ballyhooed love scene together feels more empathetic than voyeuristic.
In what has to be one of the worst narrative framing devices ever, Theron’s character is being debriefed by higher ranking officers including Toby Jones and John Goodman. Though my patience for this flashback/narration/flashforward structure was often tested, the interplay between Theron, Jones and Goodman is just witty enough to seem like tolerable detours rather than unwanted interruptions. Rounding out the case would be Eddie Marsan, Bill Skarsgard and Til Schweiger playing well…you’ll just have to watch to find out. Needless to say this is one impressive cast and McAvoy aside, everyone truly delivers. Though I can’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity to populate the movie with more than 2 women (or have women henchmen at least) I can see that the movie was at least *about* women up against a system run completely by men. Regardless there’s an energy about the cast assembled here that very much vibes with the very show-off “cool” feel of the movie.
The film is based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s comic book, The Coldest City, and as someone who has read the comic, I can say without a doubt the movie makes the right tweaks to the source material. A big thing is that the comic is very text heavy and contains little to no “action.” Atomic Blonde, while also a little heavier on exposition than I’d like, so much more is conveyed through visuals and the soundtrack/score instead. Director Leitch and his cinematographer Jonathan Sela (who also worked on the 1st John Wick) have drenched the film in deep reds and blues. In an early scene, glimpsed in the trailer, Theron emerges from an ice bath whilst recovering from several injuries. The bath is lit blue, but when she emerges her face is lit up red. The blue represents the chilly, ice queen personal Lorraine has adopted in her work and to get by in the world while the red cuts through the façade and into her interior. That’s just one example. It goes without saying there’s many more and especially in the action scenes.
Ah yes, the action scenes, if you came for this movie for that reason Atomic Blonde delivers and then some. Expectations should rightly be high considering 87Eleven’s other big movie John Wick Chapter 2, hit this year as well to much critical acclaim. Theron underwent more than 6 months of prep work and training for this movie concurrently with John Wick’s Keanu Reeves so to say she has equally potent action chops would be an understatement. Of course as evidenced by the litany of over-budgeted action movies already out this year, talent & choreography doesn’t mean much if we can’t “see” the action. David Leitch’s style is definitely of a piece with the rest of 87Eleven’s oeuvre and his colleague Chad Stahelski (John Wick co-director who helmed Chapter 2 on his own) but he also has a unique flavor on his own. Atomic Blonde’s action scenes mix and match the tactile brutality of the Bourne movies while keeping the camera at not just the right places for clarity and geography, but also *direction.* While John Wick’s action scenes favor staging and design, Leitch’s movie is more about directing in a way that compliments the movements and emotions of the performers. There can be no better example of this than a climactic show stopping 10 minute long take action sequence that will without a doubt be studied and copied for years to come. More focused on hand-to-hand combat than shootouts, Atomic Blonde lets every attack Theron delivers and receives in kind have a kind of weight and meaning about it. Lorraine’s body is never at 100 percent and you can see that toll in the execution of some of her moves. She’s trying to follow her training but her arm may be too banged up for a proper punch for example, or she may be too exhausted to perform a proper takedown. She may need to stop to recover. Other times Theron lets us see Lorraine’s thought process when reading a room for the best ways to get out of a room with multiple foes. This is action as storytelling at its best, seen before in John Wick 1 & 2 but once again in Atomic Blonde.
87Eleven Action Design has been able to accomplish astonishing films with middle level budgets (barely 1/8th of the latest superhero blockbuster), thus working towards building upon the top shelf of American action cinema as we know it. Just in time, if I may add.
The action, the storytelling, the atmosphere all of this is why it matters so much that an actress of the caliber of Charlize Theron plays what would otherwise be filled by lesser male performer. The way she effortlessly anchors the film in style and intensity makes her the best for the job. The pleasures of Atomic Blonde mostly lie towards the surface and never dig deep enough into its thoughts on role playing and nostalgia beyond allusions and armchair philosophy. And perhaps its gender and sexual politics aren’t as transgressive as it thinks it is either. For such an action focused (but not centric) movie, the dialogue-heavy, maze-like plotting never all the way meshes with Leitch’s show-y filmmaking. And yet like our lead heroine, Atomic Blonde fights through all of that and sticks the landing backwards and in fabulous heels. This spy flick had me stirring with its intrigue and sensual energy but it was the explosion of style, personality and panache that left me shaken.