By Jarrod Jones. It’s the “trust no one, look fabulously stylish as you do it” sort of flick, with the same level of propulsive action that made John Wick so devilishly watchable. And, of course, it’s all deliberate.
Nothing comes across as effortless in Atomic Blonde, a paranoid spy thriller from Focus Features and directed by David Leitch, who (wouldn’t you know it) also co-directed John Wick. Leitch puts in every conceivable effort to imbue his nasty spy picture with a fluorescent hum, and it shows. He frames his lead, Charlize Theron, with the same loving precision as he did with Keanu Reeves, saturating her in the same radiating neon brilliance while making damn sure to capture all her improbably perfect angles. The movie is impressive, and what’s more, it knows it.
Theron, who’s enjoying a career resurgence as one of Hollywood’s primary exemplars of feminine badassery, is all business here. Decked out in a wardrobe that should make fashion mavens squirm in their seats, Theron is ever a coiled cobra, poised to strike at a second’s notice. She saunters through the film’s quieter moments with a steely grace, and, when the fur finally begins to fly, she beats the hell from people with the same finesse. It’s an astounding thing to behold.
Broughton’s Targaryen-hued locks and icy mid-distance stare compliment her ever-present rocks glass of Stolichnaya. She likes ice; it keeps her vodka chilled and it fills her bathtubs, soothing the ache of endless nights warring against an armada of spies, whether it’s on the cold streets of Berlin, inside of a moving auto, or, in the film’s most stirring sequence, a snake-like apartment stairwell.
Atomic Blonde showcases a veritable hornet’s nest of Soviet sympathizers, double agents, and one deep-cover operative who’s perhaps become a bit too cozy with those he’s tasked to keep tabs on (played by James McAvoy). Only a professional such as Broughton could successfully navigate it. She’s there to obtain a list of undercover agents in Berlin just days before its infamous Wall comes tumbling down, infiltrating the Soviets’ crumbling East side which just so happens to be fortified by a colorful cast of nefarious commies with whom Broughton frequently does battle.
It’s no wonder Lorraine keeps everyone at a distance: everyone is either trying to fuck her or fight her. McAvoy’s Percival alludes to his testicles just seconds after they meet; Roland Møller’s Bremovych attempts to woo her only to be usurped by Sofia Boutella’s Delphine seconds later. And when people aren’t gauging Lorraine based on her supermodel looks, thick-necked brutes step up to her with the incorrect assumption that she poses no real threat. She’s obviously the best person for this particular job, though her sequences with MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and an especially prickly CIA fellow (John Goodman, of all people) inform the audience that the spy agencies don’t share our confidence. Lorraine works her ass off and all she gets for her trouble are the bruises.
Even our own perceptions of the female action star are put to the test in Atomic Blonde. And Charlize Theron decimates every last one of them.
Leitch, working from a screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (adapted from Oni Press’ The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), frames the action sequences with a grandiosity that seemingly comes out of nowhere. In fact, they’re shot with the same show-offiness that make people chatter on about movies like Children of Men and Birdman to this day. If Atomic Blonde could be lumped into another trite comparison, I’d say it’s the gorgeous offspring of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. It’s evocative of both for separate reasons, and like those films, it’s often overshadowed by its own technical acumen.
It’s more entertaining than it should be, considering the thunderously dull stretches of conspiratorial dialogue that plague most of the film’s first half. Though, when it finally gets to the good stuff, the movie shoves in era-appropriate New Wave tracks to punctuate how calculated everything here actually is. (“The Politics of Dancing” is heard during a steamy scene with Theron and Boutella; “Voices Carry” underscores a sequence where secrets are shared; and “I Ran (So Far Away)” infiltrates an already-thrilling car chase.) It even wants to show off its academic bonafides with allusions towards the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and — perhaps most egregiously — Machiavelli. “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver,” someone tells Lorraine halfway through the movie. As if that wasn’t obvious enough already.
Directed by David Leitch
Produced by Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A. J. Dix, Kelly McCormick, Eric Gitter, and Peter Schwerin.
Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad.
Based on ‘The Coldest City’ by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, James Faulkner, and Roland Møller.
Rated R for tastefully done sensuality and merciless bloodletting.
7 out of 10