If Atomic Blonde does anything, it shows that Charlize Theron is unequivocally an action movie star. She has been in and even co-starred in other action movies, most noticeably Mad Max: Fury Road. But here there is no doubt. Give this woman a James Bond like franchise and stat.
Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is pure cool. A British agent, she’s called in for an assignment by one of her bosses at MI-6 Eric Gray (Toby Jones). Well eventually she is. At first she’s being debriefed by Gray and the head of the CIA Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).
Atomic Blonde is an absurdly complicated and convoluted movie plot-wise, even by spy movie standards. It’s the type of convolution that leaves us wondering if even the filmmakers know what’s going on. The fact that I couldn’t always follow the plot thread shouldn’t be confused as a mark against the movie.
The plot is hardly the point. We know Lorraine is to go into East Berlin to find out who killed agent Gasciogne. We know that there is at least some history between the two. She is also there to pick up a microfilm that contains a list of every agent and mission from the cold war. The microfilm also identifies Satchel, a double agent so infamous they are like a myth in the intelligence circles. All this takes place during the final days of the Berlin Wall. Or so we are told.
At the very beginning of the film, we see a clip from the infamous speech where President Reagan demands Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. That speech was made in 1987. The movie takes place when the wall comes down in November 1989. Reagan hasn’t been President for well over six months. Is this David Leitch, the director’s, way of hinting that the film itself is an unreliable narrator? The screenwriter Kurt Johnstad has already suggested that Lorraine herself is one. The bulk of the story is told in flashback as Lorraine is debriefed by Gray and Kurzfeld.
Atomic Blonde plays with us in such a way that I’m not quite sure if it was playing fair. If we cannot believe the movie or the characters then why bother having such a Gordian knot of a plot? Or maybe that’s the point.
Nihilism as a theme of a political action movie is rare feat. If nihilism is the aim, then rarely has such despair been shrouded with bold garish neon 80’s set pieces. I mean that as a compliment.
The movie looks and sounds amazing. The soundtrack is an array of 80’s staples that range from being maybe too obscure to too on the nose. Either way it’s a rocking rolling good time at the movies with a kick ass heroine. It’s best not to try and date the songs when they come on, Atomic Blonde seems to take the 80’s as an amalgamous time.
But all of this is set dressing for what the movie really is: Charlize Theron kicking ass. Oh and does she kick ass. The fight choreography, like the John Wick movies, is like a ballet of fists and kicks.
There is one fight scene in particular that is worth the price of admission alone. It takes place, where else, in a hallway. It is shot seemingly in one long take. There may be some sly edits but the fight remains a thing of pristine cinematic beauty. Leitch has such confidence in Theron and his stunt men that there’s no soundtrack to the fight. A rarity in a film filled with such wall to wall music that it sometimes feels like a montage of music videos.
Theron projects a sort of masculine cool that few women are allowed to posses in films. Earlier this year, Kristen Stewart brought a James Dean aloofness to her performance in Personal Shopper. Theron likewise swaggers through Atomic Blonde with a McQueen-esque coolness.
She is cool hard steel. That is until her seduction of the French operative Delphine (Sofia Boutella). Or is it Delphine who seduces Lorraine? That Leitch and Johnstad allow any kind of tenderness or sincerity in a movie as cynical as this is risky. Even more so when it’s involving two women in love.
Oh yes, I said love. I believe if nothing else Lorraine loved Delphine. For if she didn’t, then what was the purpose of her mourning after Delphine’s death? Or her anger at agent Percival (James McAvoy) for murdering her? Boutella’s time on the screen is brief and never satisfyingly enough. Her Delphine is a breath of fresh air. In a story filled with people disillusioned with the war and the job, Delphine exists as a reminder that some people still believe in the mission.
McAvoy’s Percival is Lorraine’s man in Berlin. Her guide through East Berlin. Much like everything else in the movie, he is also unreliable. McAvoy is a great actor and he turns in a wonderfully oily and duplicitous performance. But he can not pull the movie out of Theron’s iron-like grasp.
If Atomic Blonde works at all it’s because of Theron. She may be surrounded by talents such as Toby Jones and John Goodman. They are merely there, much like the 80’s, as set dressing.
It’s not perfect. It passes on a perfect ending to give us a ‘clearer’ one. The plot feels so pointless to follow that when the movie does try to deal with it, it drags. Albeit never to the point of absolute boredom. These are minor quibbles. If there is any justice in the world, Atomic Blonde will be the first of many of Lorraine Broughton’s adventures. Even if we never get those movies, at least we have this one.