Over the course of the insane beat-‘em-up Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron stabs, shoots, punches, kicks, chokes, throws, and otherwise brutalizes an endless cast of enemies that’s as large as anything John Wick, Jason Bourne, or James Bond ever took on. And she does it all in stiletto heels, looking like Debbie Harry gone glamazon, backed up by a soundtrack featuring some of the 80s best Europop, and a director who’s sense of style and movement often hides his film’s narrative failings.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, one of MI6’s top agents, who is sent into Berlin just a few days before the Wall comes down in 1989. When one of her fellow agents winds up dead, Lorraine is sent to investigate the murder and recover “The List”, a microfilm that includes the true identities of any number of undercover operatives. Her partner is Berlin bureau chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who’s gone native and makes extra money by smuggling Jordache jeans and Jack Daniels to rebellious youths in East Berlin. Told to trust no one, Lorraine begins an uneasy partnership with Percival in order to get back The List before it’s sold off, jeopardizing the entirety of the West’s intelligence operations.
Don’t turn around (uh-oh)…Charlize Theron’s in town (uh-oh!)
WARNING! REVIEW MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS.
The paragraphs you just read may make it seem like Atomic Blonde is a relatively straight-forward film with a simple plot used to hang any number of wickedly-choreographed, hypnotic fight scenes. You’d only be half-right, though. AB’s needlessly labyrinthine story does indeed seem to exist only to stage the intense set pieces, but it’s anything but straight-forward. In fact, very little of it makes any sense at all until close to the end, when Lorraine lays out the bare bones of the narrative during a debriefing session.
That’s likely entirely on purpose. AB is a self-conscious homage to any number of 80s and 90s spy thrillers that similarly had nonsensical scripts and left-field plot twists seemingly as a requirement of the genre. The supporting characters start to blur together, and eventually you reach a point where you stop trying to figure everything out and give in to the film’s icy-cool charm. Unlike a film like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, who’s narrative failings were unintentional, Atomic Blonde’s messy story is at least partially (if not entirely) on purpose. The narrative continuously moves forward, rarely becoming recursive, and it becomes easy to get lost in the momentum.
One of 99 lit cigarettes.
But let’s face it; none of us is here for the story. We’re here for some good, old-fashioned violence, and Atomic Blonde delivers that in spades (and also in knives, pistols, rifles, and the ever-reliable sucker punch). Every single hit is meticulously timed and choreographed but possessed of an anarchic energy that makes the battles seem improvised and furious. Many of the scenes are cut together to appear as one long take, making them even more immediate. Theron did almost all of her own fighting, charging through every scene like a whirlwind of destruction, using every bit of her environment to her advantage. In a scene where she fights with East Berlin police in an abandoned apartment, her weapons include a frying pan, a freezer door, and a coiled-up length of hose. Lorraine isn’t just a great fighter; she’s the living embodiment of the fight itself.
The epic, holy-crap-did-you-just-see-that nature of the brawls shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given that director David Leitch was one of the people responsible for the similarly go-for-broke fight scenes in 2014’s John Wick. Leitch is just as adept at quiet moments that don’t leave the characters with broken bodies, and he saves most of his camera tricks for the fights themselves. The in-betweens tend to be calmer, cooler, and quieter but keeping the intensity of Lorraine’s fights as a subtext.
How does it feel…to beat me like you do…
Leitch is great at using visual cues to inform the characters, allowing the images to color them in. (As the film is based on a graphic novel, that might be a given.) The first time we see Lorraine, she’s in a bath tub filled with ice, trying to heal the numerous cuts and bruises from her latest fight. Without looking, she takes a few cubes and fills up a tumbler sitting next to the tub, then also without looking, fills it with just the right amount of Stoli. That sequence says more about Lorraine than anything in Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay does, and Theron is so perfect in her understanding of Lorraine that she speaks volumes with a single look. Leitch could have made AB a near-silent film without losing much depth or dimension.
Leitch has a similar flare for musical cues, having impeccable taste in classic New Wave and synth-pop. After her ice-and-Stoli bath, Lorraine heads to her debriefing while David Bowie belts “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”. A frantic car chase, which includes an intense melee within one of the cars itself, is staged to Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” (here appropriately in the original German). ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” is used more than once to underscore scenes where a character’s double-dealing and deception are discovered. It you’ll forgive another comparison to Valerian, AB is another Euro-centric film whose soundtrack is more a powerful narrative device than its actual screenplay.
Never thought I’d meet a boy like you…meet a boy like you…
That screenplay includes an unnecessarily large amount of supporting characters for a film that’s primarily about showing off how magnetic, ferocious, and badass Charlize Theron is, and the confused script leaves several of them with little to do. McAvoy obviously gets the most time, and he handles his part as well as expected. With his muscles jacked and his eyes constantly flashing sarcasm, he’s an undeniably attractive and dangerous bad-boy who’s loyalties are immediately suspect in his very first scene. Despite his success at playing a young, noble Charles Xavier in the new X-Men films, McAvoy seems most conformable playing people of questionable morals and ethics, and there’s no denying that he completely enjoys his role here.
A third special agent ends up in the mix, a novice French operative played with open charisma and appealing naturalism by Sofia Boutella. She shares an unflinching, scorching-hot sex scene with Theron that’s sensational in how unsensational it is. Neither woman is definitely positioned as L or B, and the scene explicitly lacks the expected titillation factor of the films it’s emulating, simply turning it into another character examination. Boutella is the closest thing Theron has to a romantic lead, and both actresses sell their chemistry effortlessly.
The politics of…(ahem)…dancing.
No matter the faults in Atomic Blonde’s messy narrative or uneven cast of supporting characters, the film is consistently entertaining and captivating. Letich has a knack for unique and heart-stopping fight sequences; this is only film to ever feature a knife fight staged against a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s high-art sci-fi film Stalker. It’s stylized to death, but when the style is this appealing, that’s barely considered a sin. And it helps when your film’s center is Charlize Theron, a woman so kick-ass that she could give Wonder Woman a run for her money. AB might not be the cleanest cut, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.
Best enjoyed with your favorite liquor. On the rocks, of course.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B