Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy. Directed by David Leitch.
For some, the fall of the Berlin is a moment in history as vivid as the day the Twin Towers fell, or for some of the death of Princess Diana, but for many the Red threat and the divide in Germany is unknown land.
David Leitch, the co-director of the first John Wick movie presents his first solo-directorial effort and his pre-Deadpool 2 palette cleanser. Atomic Blonde is a spy movie based on the underground (read never heard of) graphic novel The Coldest City, written by one of the co-writers of 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire.
The plot follows a stoic MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton who is sent into Cold War Berlin to find a watch that has the names of every double agent currently working – that old chestnut – and liaise with various ne’er do wells. It’s a fairly standard set up, and one that has the air of simplicity, but it also has buckets of potential.
As action films move further and further away from the Paul Greengrass-Michael Bay cut-a-thin style of filmmaking and go back to the musical era of long takes, Atomic Blonde comes with a brash confidence that bodes very well for the upcoming merc-with-the-mouth sequel. In fact, the action is the stuff that carries the film, with thrilling smack downs, gun fights, and car chases. Of course, one stand out set piece is the brutal corridor fight scene in which Charlize Theron’s Broughton puts a big hurt in an assortment of baddies in what appears to be one long single take; it’s not, but it looks like it.
What works with these action scenes is that coming off the insanity of John Wick, director Leitch is not afraid to make the action into brutal, painful stuff. Seeing a leading lady punched hard in the face, the ribs and thrown against walls is hard to stomach at times, but what eases the audience is seeing her get up and with a glare that could cut a fart in half, smack them back with a fire and anger that is guaranteed to make you cheer.
It helps, of course, that Charlize Theron is an oscar-winning action woman who can hold the screen with her cold eyes and sharp facial features alone. Broughton comes off as a sort of cross between her best characters: the action fury of Mad Max Fury Road’s Furiosa, the stern drive of Meredith Vickers of Prometheus and the bath-taking ice bitch seen in the modern Snow White films. Yes, there is a lot of her taking baths in ice, and her character boils down to drinking Russian vodka, but she manages to become a full character based solely on the commitment of Theron. Much like Angelina Jolie, she is doing wonders for an original, non-franchise woman-spy movie much like Salt from a few years back.
Around her is a great supporting cast, while there’s only the briefest of thumbnail sketch roles for the supporting cast that can be boiled down to three words: John Goodman (American, Authority, Bearded), Toby Jones (Untrustworthy, British, Prick), Til Schwieger (Germanic, Watch, Glasses), it’s down to James McAvoy and Sofia Boutella to provide proper characterisation. Having played a nerdy person for so long it appears that James McAvoy’s Percival is channelling the ghost of his Filth character, though one who has raided the closet of Tyler Durden, he’s clearly having a blast and it shows.
But, the main praise is for Sofia Boutella as the french agent Delphine. It’s hard in these touch-as-nails action films to bring a more sensitive character to life and invest them with a threat but also a gentle sexuality, luckily Boutella is quickly becoming the go-to person for attractive and strong. It should also be noted that the sex scene between Theron and Boutella will rank as one of the sexiest in cinema because the two of them have such a building tension.
The soundtrack, also, is great with it’s mix of mad 80s pop that thunder into your ears just as painfully and as the gun shots and the punches. But there are problems, and there are missteps, the plot is overly twisty, and there might prove to be a few twists too many that sort of undermines the action fun when it becomes really hard to follow. The cold war spy setting is great but it makes no great comments of the climate in the way that – say – Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island did about Vietnam. In fact the idea of a list is becoming a massive spy-genre cliche, it’s a plot device used in Mission: Impossible and Skyfall.
But, if the film proves anything it’s that Boutella, Theron and McAvoy are all brilliant movie stars who can hold their own, and David Leitch is a director to watch. There may be no need to make James Bond a woman after all, as this film proves there are great original stories that can be told with solid movie stars. It’s as if John McTiernan directed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with a soundtrack hand-picked from your dad’s awesome mix. It’s a cracking good, if politically empty, time.