Atomic Blonde *****
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Toby Jones,
Director: David Leitch
“It’s about time we had a bisexual action heroine!” I hear you cry? Well it would appear Hollywood has heard our plea, because that’s exactly what we’ve got in Charlize Theron’s kick-ass performance as Lorraine Broughton in the movie adaptation of graphic novel ‘The Coldest City’.
It is 1989 and Broughton is an undercover spy for MI6, who is dispatched to Berlin in the weeks leading up to the collapse of the East German regime. Under orders from her superior Gray (Jones) and CIA agent Kurzfeld (Goodman), she is instructed to recover a list of undercover agents in the USSR, which has been stolen and sold by a double-agent known as Satchel. Teaming up with volatile agent Daniel Percival on arrival (McAvoy), she meets with the source of the list (Marsan) and attempts track its movement, all the while under the watchful gaze of French agent Delphine (Boutella), with whom Broughton begins an illicit affair.
The spy genre is long-established and with towering icons like Bond, Bourne and Ethan Hunt, it takes a strong film with an even stronger protagonist to compete with these juggernauts of cinema. Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt has been the closest female character to come close to this prize, but with its sequel unable to get off the ground, there has been a gap in the market ever since. Enter Charlize Theron. Ice blonde, complete with retro shades, long coats and sultry smoking, she struts across concrete in killer heels just because she’s that damn cool. Ferocious, efficient and astute, she is cold enough to be a vicious killer, but just warm enough for us to believe in her humanity. She’s bold, strong and dangerous but without being masculinised or turned into a sexualised femme fatale.
Our sympathy comes from her relationship with Delphine, which is unsensational in its depiction of same-sex sexuality on screen. To an extent, both are objectified by the camera, but in 2017, when James Bond is as objectified as the girls he seduces, this Hollywoodised sexuality should hardly come as an affront to anyone. Her connection with Delphine is both tender and believable and the only cracks in her ironclad veneer come when her lover is in genuine peril. And for Delphine’s positioning as the softer love interest, she can still hold her own in hand-to-hand combat too.
There are elements that remind you of Atomic Blonde’s graphic novel origins. It uses punk-esque spray-painted fonts, relies heavily on neon drenched city-scapes and the action often slows to bullet-time to really frame those moments of extreme violence. In the wake of Guardians Of The Galaxy and this year’s Baby Driver, Tarantino-esque carefully curated pop soundtracks have also become the current go-to “this will give your movie an edge”, but with Atomic Blonde, this proves indelibly effective, with action sequences, montages and exposition shots all underscored by a playlist of 1989-appropriate slick Gary Numan-esque coolness. But, funnily enough, without a single note from Blondie.
The title and the haircut are both enormous hat-tips (wig-tips, maybe?) to Debbie Harry, but as a result of all this new wave chic, we see the fall of the Iron Curtain from a pop culture perspective, which is refreshingly different from recent depictions of the same period, such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies. The Stasi, KGB and Checkpoint Charlie are all in there, but the film aims to depict both East and West like editorials from magazine shoots, while the stark realism of its fight sequences are more akin to The Bourne Series than a computer game. In one scene, we follow Broughton in and then out of a Berlin tenement, battling KGB agents all the way in what appears to be one long and astonishing ten-minute tracking shot. First-time director Leitch has clearly taken a leaf from Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘How To Direct’ manuals, because the way his camera zooms in and around the action is both pulse-racingly magnetic and, at times, seat-wettingly uncomfortable. Atomic Blonde is hyper-violent, slick, industrial gloss and is a triumph for the spy genre.
Bond delights in glamour; Bourne in its realism; the Mission: Impossible series in the charisma of its lead. Charlize Theron has cemented herself firmly in that pantheon resembling a young Anna Wintour with a serious grudge. Where previous spy movies about the latter days of the Cold War have become caught up in their own earnestness, this is a delightfully swift film that pays no credence to past grey depictions of a permanently drizzling Eastern Bloc. Instead, it insists that every hotel room be bathed in neon and every rain-streaked window should be smashed by a white-blonde Theron crashing through it. Admittedly the double-crosses of the final act come a bit too thick and fast to stay entirely on top of, but otherwise the whole film is nothing but a pure joy to watch.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.