Genre: Action, Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 115 minutes
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones and John Goodman
(Movie House Cinemas, Preview Screening)
An undercover MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.
Going into Atomic Blonde I knew only that it was based on a comic book and that early critical consensus was that it was aesthetically pleasing but not too deep otherwise. I am pleasantly surprised by what the film had to offer on both counts.
Atomic Blonde is based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and Charlize Theron (both leading lady and producer) has been eager for its adaptation since buying the rights in 2012. The comic influence is apparent, Berlin is all neon lights, harsh lines, and garish blood spatters. The film opens with a graffiti effect and a pop song medley, cutting between various locations and characters, which instantly (and nervously) reminded me of Suicide Squad. Yet, here the dark tone and violence are balanced perfectly with cartoonish bright colours and pop soundtrack. There’s no confusion of tone, Atomic Blonde knows exactly what it wants to be.
As for the critiques that it’s “not too deep” or all style and no substance. I’d agree to an extent, there’s a lot in terms of plot (like A LOT) and trying to keep up with who works for who, and who is double-crossing who, quickly feels like a wild goose chase. It’s a choppy film, anxious to get through exposition and dense web of plot threads into the next big set-piece. In terms of characters, it’s more cool than complex.
This is not an in-depth character study, nor is it trying to be. In a Cold War spy movie, emotional detachment is the only way to survive, and we know (just) enough about Lorraine Broughton to root for her. I think there may be an unfair expectation that because our action hero is a woman she needs to be emotionally complex, or conflicted. Has an audience ever demanded more empathy from James Bond?
What about more emotional vulnerability from Snake Plissken? We like these characters because they look cool and kick ass; what’s cooler than a Debbie Harry look-alike taking on the KGB, CIA, and possible MI6 double agents?
Mercifully, the film avoids pushing the whole “badass in heels” angle too far and never feels self-congratulatory about its gender politics. I was happy not to have some Russian baddie spouting clichéd lines, like “Vat? You think I vould not hit you because you are voman?”. It introduces a bisexual relationship with a rival French agent (Sofia Boutella) but it feels like cheap thrills more than anything and never really develops into something interesting. The gender issue, like the minutia of spy network alliances, is not especially relevant, it’s not really what the film wants to be about.
The detached nature of the film lets us focus on what very matters – the action. And the action is the star of the show; perfectly choreographed and brutal. The camera floats along in seemingly one long take for many of the action scenes, immersive and fully aware of how cool it is. It lets us see every blow in well lit, wide shot glory.
Director David Leitch, best known for John Wick, is a former stunt co-ordinator and you can tell. The action is a stunt person’s dream and seems to be a statement against current trends in claustrophobic, choppy editing in most movie action scenes.
The action set-pieces are when the film hits its stride, when both the movie and the audience are having the most fun. The film seems fully aware that you just came to see Charlize Theron kick ass, that you just want to see something cool and that small details like plot or character are incidental to getting there.
Ultimately, Atomic Blonde’s greatest strength is its aesthetic and its action because without those elements there is not much else. But as someone who loves 80s pop, old Volvo cars, and senseless movie violence, I’d say that’s enough to make it worth a watch. It’s enough for a summer blockbuster to just be nice to look at and fun to watch.