Atomic Blonde Review
This glamorous right hook of a thriller stars Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton; a British secret agent on a mission to Berlin, 1989. She’s in pursuit of a list detailing undercover allied operatives, safeguarded by a man named Spyglass (a trembling Eddie Marsan) and inside man David Percival (James McAvoy, who gives a great line in clenched teeth and spittle). Before you can say “Checkpoint Charlize”, Broughton is set upon by double agents and hitmen from all sides, forced to employ her very specific set of skills: looking impossibly fashionable while kicking people in the face.
Though this film comes from one half of the directorial team behind John Wick (David Leitch, currently directing Deadpool 2), the fight choreography has more in common with the sweaty thudding of Gareth Evans’ The Raid than Wick’s cool, precise gunplay. Broughton attacks in a flurry of fists, heels, and whatever object – a ladder, a hose, a set of car keys – comes closest to hand. Theron (as if she had anything left to prove after Mad Max: Fury Road) is a powerhouse, getting properly stuck into the stunt work with aplomb.
A second act stairwell brawl concocted to appear as one fluid, seven-minute take is the stuff of dreams, slapping upon you that facial expression that lies somewhere between shock and glee. The choreography is beautifully matched with Theron’s background as a ballet dancer and captured expertly by the wide, sweeping movements of the camera. While CG blood is employed, it’s sparse, Theron and her assailants’ slow regression into gasping, bruised husks speaking louder than splatter (or, incidentally, the best use of a Wilhelm scream since Hellboy).
When Theron’s heels are planted on the Berlin concrete – as opposed to the groin of a KGB hitman – there’s much joy to be found in her imperious glaring at McAvoy or the befuddlement of the higher-ups tasked with debriefing her (Toby Jones for the Brits and John Goodman for the CIA).
On reflection, what narrative can be found strung between the set pieces holds up about as well as the wall (or Theron’s British accent). Leitch’s film might wear its eighties sight and sound proudly on its sleeve (a cinema is decked out with storey-high posters for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and the eye-rolls as 'London Calling' played were almost audible), but the overwrought plot machinations are a decidedly 2010s, post-The Dark Knight, affair. It’s as easy to lose track of who’s double-crossing who as it is to be entranced by the neon-lit scenes of passion between Theron and Sofia Boutella (playing Delphine Lasalle, a timid French spy).
The filmmakers’ decision to openly display Broughton’s bisexuality is admirable and gives a fresh, even progressive spin on the Bond girl trope: Lasalle defies the usual path to disposable sexual object and the crucial moment of their relationship – set to a gorgeously slow version of '99 Luftballoons' – carries genuine emotion.
On paper, Atomic Blonde couldn’t be more up the street of yours truly if it was subtitled ‘A Star Wars Story’. In actuality, it’s a near miss that makes up for a lack of logic with a swift delivery of bone-crunching, grin-broadening, thigh high-booted fun.