Lorraine could only vaguely remember last night’s David Hasselhoff concert…
Atomic Blonde is another in a line of films that includes Edge of Tomorrow and Kingsman: The Secret Service, insofar as it seems to be an original, non-franchise genre movie in a sea of sequels and remakes. Like those movies, a slight adjustment of the viewer’s abysmal ignorance reveals that it is another relatively obscure comic book adaptation, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City. Set in snowy Berlin in the days before the Wall came down, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is tasked with retrieving a vital, watch-shaped MacGuffin that could reignite the dying embers of the Cold War. Given that the city is a powder-keg brimming with political unrest and sporting representatives from at least five different spy agencies, including fellow Brit David Percival (James McAvoy), French naïf Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella) and CIA interloper Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), horrific, deplorable violence and backstabbing a-plenty abound. As loyalties twist and switch, and Broughton must discover exactly who she can trust.
The brief plot summary above should be evidence enough that whatever originality Atomic Blonde can boast is not to be found in the story. This is boiler-plate spy shenanigans, with the requisite tailing and counter-tailing, coded conversations and enough hidden microphones to make Richard Nixon envious. It doesn’t even do the audience the courtesy of making a whole lot of sense, with major revelations more often eliciting a “huh…” than a “eureka!”. However, in spite of a lull in the middle, the story performs its real function fairly well, namely bridging the gap between the movie’s visceral and bloody action scenes, and offering an excuse to play the outstanding soundtrack in the background. The film’s music is a time capsule of ’80s classics, some original and some covered, including some very interesting use of a slowed-down Blue Monday and a climax set to that sunny anthem of nuclear annihilation, 99 Luftballons.
David Leitch clearly learned a two while working on John Wick, because Atomic Blonde‘s action is the absolute highlight. The fight scenes are elaborate and well-choreographed, and tend to remain grounded in pragmatism rather than spectacle. Notwithstanding the uncanny resilience of both hero and villains, this is no bloodless, consequence-free superhero melée. Hitting people hurts, getting hit hurts, and injuries do not disappear with the wave of a magic sponge. The visceral nature of the action is a huge strength of the movie. The story begins with a shot of a nude Broughton, submerging herself into a bathtub full of ice and water. This is a distinctly un-titillating scene; Broughton has clearly had the shit kicked out of her, and the audience is unsubtly told that this film isn’t going to pull its punches, figuratively or literally. This opening scene ties into a broader triumph of the movie. With gorgeous movie stars of male or female persuasion, there is often an unwillingness to damage their pretty faces too much, with battle damage limited to a meagre bloodied lip or a cosmetically pleasing forehead graze. Even in the film’s framing device, set shortly after the events of the story, Broughton still bears the bruises and scars of her German excursion.
Furthermore, upon close inspection of the film, it seems to have been written genuinely gender-blind. Switching only the roles of Theron and the male lead, James McAvoy, would perhaps require a few incidental lines to be rewritten, but would have essentially no effect on the film’s events or the audience’s enjoyment, barring the disappointment in another lost opportunity for a female action star (and the sad relegation of the film’s gay relationship to backstory instead of story). This is not to say that the casting of a female lead is irrelevant, but rather that the film doesn’t pander to a pseudo-feminist, “girl power” idea. Broughton is a feminist character insofar as she is not defined by her sex, but by her motivation and her proficiency in the field of ass-kickery. She’s not the deepest or most complex character, but then neither is John Wick, and incredible nuance is the appeal of neither. The comparison with Wick is not altogether apt, as Broughton is a more human hero. This is another good thing; she is not elevated to the level of a superhuman to “convincingly” take on the endless parade of male goons. She’s just hard-as-nails. With Broughton and Fury Road‘s Furiosa under her belt, Theron appears to be becoming the go-to choice for this kind of role, and while it would be nice to see such opportunities extended to other women, small progress is better than no progress.
Atomic Blonde is bloody good fun if the deficiencies in story and characterisation can forgiven. Being an action movie does not preclude these elements being much stronger, but with fight scenes this exciting, such absolution is pretty easily attained. This will likely end up being one of the underrated gems of 2017, less-seen than the megabudget blockbusters or prestige Oscar-chasers, but deserving of a place on any adrenaline junkie’s list.
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Kurt Johnstad (Based on the graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart)
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and John Goodman