Director - David Leitch
Cast - Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger
Rating - 3.5/5
Atomic Blonde – if the title didn’t give it away already – is a film obsessed with appearances. Like a vain model who spends hours in the makeup chair hiding her every blemish underneath a layer of lies, Atomic Blonde, at least for a while, successfully manages to con us into thinking that it’s a good time. It stays in disguise till the very end, gorgeous as ever, but when the polluted city rain washes away the foundation, it stands there in shame, unsure of what to say or what to do, its cocksure strut rudely interrupted.
It’s set in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Newly-minted action star Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an M16 agent – just not the sort you’d expect to find in James Bond’s bed. Instead, it’s quite likely that were Agent 007 to make advances towards her, he would probably find himself out of a wrist, with a shattered knee, and a deep gash where his cocky smile used to be.
Lorraine’s been sent to Germany to track down a double agent who, her bosses tell her, has been sliding information to the Soviets. When she gets to Berlin, she’s supposed to meet the eccentric station chief, played by James McAvoy, who’ll act as her eyes and ears as she navigates a city in mid-celebration, what with Ronald Reagan’s two-year-old plea having finally come true.
This is the briefest, most efficient way to describe Atomic Blonde’s premise. The plot, you will learn – once the cool, ‘80s-inspired opening credits have come and gone, and Lorraine’s cracked a few skulls – is damn near impossible to follow. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s an unwritten law that Cold War spy movies must be needlessly convoluted, replete with too many murky characters, the double, triple and quadruple crosses arriving at a rate faster than anyone - even Lorraine - can handle. Every time Atomic Blonde sneaks out into the real world, it is as if two wrinkled hands drag it back into a smoky room, and into a squeaky chair, where it will have to engage in dense conversation.
But that’s not the kind of movie it is. It’s hyper-stylised to a fault – almost to the extent of 300 and Sin City, which were both, like Atomic Blonde, adapted from comic books. It’s the kind of movie in which characters foxily pull down their shades to reveal come-to-bed eyes; the kind of movie in which hot women take luxurious drags off half-smoked cigarettes, and walk with the clip-clop of stilettos on cold concrete.
And in the hands of David Leitch, one-half of the team that brought us John Wick, it’s a film that has one of the best action scenes of the last decade. Not even exaggerating. The scene arrives a little after an hour into the movie, and without a shadow of doubt, is worth the price of admission alone.
We begin at the top of a staircase, and follow Lorraine as she hacks and slashes her way through several goons to the bottom, the handheld camera ducking in and out of hallways and bedrooms and kitchens, and into the street, where it squeezes itself into a car with her. And then it continues, unbroken, for almost 10 minutes.
It isn’t the first time DP Jonathan Sela has shot mayhem in Berlin, but it’s certainly his finest hour behind the lens. More than Leitch, more than Theron, the one person who leaves their unmistakable stamp on this picture is Sela. His visuals are almost annoyingly beautiful, but always composed in service of the story.
The screen is awash with blues and greys as Lorraine plots her cold moves, and plunges into ice baths. But when the action heats up – either through stunningly-choreographed violence, or in bed with another woman – her face is ablaze with reds. It’s a rather rudimentary approach to visual storytelling, but that’s how DW Griffith and Erich von Stroheim did it almost a hundred years ago. It works.
But none of this – Leitch’s expertise at action, Sela’s frames, and Tyler Bates’ Kavinsky-inspired score (aided by moody German covers of ‘80s hits) – is enough to distract from the uneven writing. Oh, what a tremendous film this would have been disrobed of 30 minutes. But it stands, slightly conscious of the attention it’s attracting, in two layers too many.
Watch the Atomic Blonde trailer here