Atomic Blonde has the espionage of Bond and the action of John Wick; with Charlize Theron portraying the stone cold, cool-as-ice, and stunningly sexy agent Lorraine Broughton.
Set during the fall of the Berlin War in 1989, though not related to this historic event whatsoever, we follow MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton in her journey to Berlin to investigate the murder of fellow agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) and to locate “The List”. As in many Cold War spy thrillers, “The List” is a piece of microfilm containing the names of all allied field agents active in the Soviet Union and, in true Bond style, the microfilm is hidden in a wristwatch. Unfortunately, things start going wrong for Lorraine as soon as the her killer heels touch the ground, but people soon find out she is a force to be reckoned with. Lorraine’s contact in Berlin is MI6 agent and station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) who seems to have adapted to his environment a little too well, being described in the film as “feral”, and has his own rules and motives.
The narrative is a re-telling of the events that took place in Berlin by Lorraine in an debriefing led by MI6 executive Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). Throughout the film we are thrown, both seamlessly and abruptly, between Berlin and the London interrogation room, the questions posed to Lorraine driving the story forward and building doubt and suspicion regarding everyone’s intentions.
In stark contrast to the seriousness of other cold war and general spy thrillers, and even the background and plot of this film, David Leitch has used a combination of very stylistic components to create an entertaining, anarchistic and glam rock atmosphere. The garish neon lights, spray paint screen annotations, breaking the fourth wall, a steamy lesbian affair, a new wave score, and bold outfits give a lighter edge to this violent and bloody thriller. This style is reminiscent of films made in the ’90s depicting anarchy, disregard for rules or an anti-establishment message.
The contrast extends down to the counterculture depicted on both sides of the Berlin wall. In the West, everyone is free to dress and drink as they please, whereas, in the East, we see youths being punished for partying, the inevitable rebellion and revolution. This is reflected in Lorraine’s image as well as the atmosphere; in the West her dress and make-up is bold, provocative and punk, in the East she switches the sheer blonde for brunette and dresses plainly with minimal make-up.
The soundtrack is as killer as Theron; tracks from the likes of David Bowie, Kanye West, The Clash, Queen, Public Enemy, Health and New Order give the film power and emotion. What is particularly interesting is the use of the original song, plus a reprisal using a cover in a later scene with a very different mood. At some points this reinforced the direction of the plot, descents into chaos, loss of control and stings of emotion. With the help of composer and music supervisor Tyler Bates (composer for John Wick), Leitch has put together a playlist that compliments the non-verbal storytelling occurring in much of the film and reflects the environment and rebellion of the period.
As well as a killer soundtrack, this film has absolutely brutal action sequences. David Leitch’s stunt background explains the satisfaction I got from watching those scenes; he has been stunt man, double, coordinator and co-director for a number of action-heavy films (Fight Club, 300, Bourne films, Matrix films, John Wick, and the upcoming Deadpool 2). The realism Leitch has injected here is impressive and effective; Theron insisted that she do as many of the stunts as legally permitted, training for months on her strength, wrestling and Muay Thai, and even getting a couple of sparring sessions in with Keanu Reeves!! Her style is what you would expect for a woman fighting men two to three times her size, the participants get tired as you would expect when you’re getting your ass kicked that hard, and people get horrific injuries, including Lorraine. We even see her emerge from an ice bath, battered, bloody and bruised, and no make-up to hide the swollen, blackened eye she received during the course of her Berlin antics. These are the consequences of her profession and entering heavy hand-to-hand combat. One of these scenes is around 7 minutes long and actually shot in continuity, this means no time to alter make-up, re-adjust wigs, or apply any extra effects, which is why I expect the characters look so exhausted and a complete mess by the end; but all this just augments the realism of the scene.
The supporting roles around Lorraine help to reveal distinct attributes of her character; with Gray, Kurzfeld and Percival she is cold and steely, she does not trust anyone and does not play nice. Even with the stasi officer, code name “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan), Lorraine has to protect and escort out East Berlin, she remains icy and emotionless in order to properly do her job. Conversely, the young and innocent French intelligence agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) brings out a more honest vulnerable side to Lorraine. Originally, the french agent was male in the graphic novel “The Coldest City” that Atomic Blonde is based on, Leitch agreed that the gender flip was a good move and makes the story a little more provocative which he describes as integral for his vision for his solo directorial debut.
Overall this movie is a hit for me; with exciting action, bold fashion and music, great comedic timing and funny quips. It’s true that the storyline is a little generic and you do have to pay attention to make sure you understand what is going on and who’s betraying who, but it’s clear that Leitch’s focus was the style of the retelling. In his own words, he wanted to be fresh, provocative and reinvent the “stuffy” cold war spy movie. It sounds like Theron really enjoyed this role, saying that it was her perfect female protagonist, regardless of how many times she puked in training or how many teeth she cracked. She owned this part and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her kick-ass.
And as Theron’s costume designer Cindy Evans rightly said: “Yeah, because Bond could never do it—so you have to”.