Girl power, or perhaps Grrr-l power, is back on the big screen with ATOMIC BLONDE, director David Leitch’s (JOHN WICK) stylish and hyperviolent take on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel, The Coldest City. The film stars Charlize Theron (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) as British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who is sent to Berlin just as the Wall is about to come down (in November 1989, in case you’re too young to remember) to bring back one of her colleagues who was recently summarily executed there under suspicious circumstances and to find a watch that contains damaging information about who is spying for whom in that divided city. The story begins ten days later with the very battered and bruised Broughton getting out of an ice water bath in her swish London flat and heading over to MI6 headquarters to be debriefed by her handler, Eric Gray (Toby Jones, CAPTAIN AMERICA franchise), and CIA big shot, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS; TRUMBO; KONG: SKULL ISLAND). As the top-level spy recounts the events that brought both her and us to this point, we quickly realise that nothing and no one are as they seem.
Strutting about in fiercely high heels and looking very much like ’80s pop/punk/rap icon, Debbie Harry, with her cropped platinum blonde hair, Broughton seems like someone you just don’t want to mess with. That feeling is borne out within moments of her arrival in Berlin when a pair of burly KGB agents tries to abduct her outside the airport. Broughton’s fists of fury and rapid-fire moves that would impress Jackie Chan are quickly put to the test with spectacularly deadly results. First problem solved, she rendezvous with David Percival (James McAvoy, the new X-MEN franchise), MI6’s station chief in Berlin who, we’re told, has “gone feral”. Percival seems helpful – in his debauched way – but can she trust him? He informs Broughton that although the watch has gone missing, a Stasi agent known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan, THEIR FINEST), who worked on the list and claims to have memorized it, has offered the highly sensitive information to the British in exchange for their assistance in his defection to the West. While Brougton is dealing with an assortment of Russian spies who are well aware of her presence in the city and why she’s there, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY; STAR TREK BEYOND), a wet-behind-the-ears, French spy inserts herself into the fray, seemingly taking a curious interest in Broughton’s well-being. Before long, everyone is playing everyone else in this game of Spy vs. Spy. Over the next week, Broughton has to weave her way through the melange of shady characters who have questionable loyalties, hitmen, Soviet and German bureaucracy, and social upheaval, which she does with experience, brute force… and a garden hose.
If roller coasters are your thing, you will love this film because this is one hell of a ride with all of the plot’s twist and turns. (Be warned, there is no shortage of splattered blood on display.) True to Leitch’s style, ATOMIC BLONDE also has some incredibly well choreographed fight scenes, and Theron has more than risen to the challenge. There is one five-minute long scene that looks like it was done in one take where Broughton takes on a succession of Russian and East German thugs in an abandoned apartment building. Broughton’s ferocity and lethalness put Jason Bourne and James Bond to shame here. And that may be why so many male critics are on the fence with this film. Perhaps they don’t like seeing a powerful female spy on the big screen. (Thankfully, I can handle it.) If this were a Bourne or a Bond film, these guys would all be wetting their pants in excitement. Instead they’re picking nits, complaining that the soundtrack – a collection of new wave and synthpop hits from that era that includes songs by Depeche Mode, New Order and A Flock of Seagulls – was uninspired. One critic even went so far as say that Blondie’s “Atomic” should have been included. He’s clearly never listened to that song because it doesn’t fit the mood of the film, plus it would have been just a wee bit too obvious. (A few German and Austrian hits that made it big internationally – Nena’s “99 Balloons”, Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” and Falco’s “Der Kommissar” – are also very rightly featured.)
Theron looks absolutely amazing here even when she’s kicking, punching, slashing, gouging or shooting her way around Berlin. She’s clearly worked out hard to get so fit, proving that muscles don’t just belong on men. (She’s more taut than buff.) Her sexy, retro wardrobe is brilliant too, from the oversized “Boy London” T-shirt and knit sweaters to the slinky gowns and blood red trench coat. Theron wears them all with wonderful style.
The camerawork, by DP Jonathan Sela (JOHN WICK), is stunning as well. There is one scene where Broughton is dressed in black and white, and the background has been desaturated of colour — very film noir. Almost imperceptibly, colour seeps in as the action builds. You can imagine that the graphic novel is done the same way.
There is another book to this series — a prequel — called The Coldest Winter, which features some of the same characters. I don’t know if there are plans to give that one the movie treatment too, but if it means seeing more of Lorraine Broughton, count me in!
ATOMIC BLONDE is one of the best films you’ll see all summer. Go see it!
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