My notes on the Charlizesploitation movie.
Atomic Blonde is more or less the feature directorial debut of David Leitch, previously a stuntman-stunt arranger-2nd unit-fight director whose breakthrough credit was all the action in John Wick. That perhaps explains why it seems like a film that was once pitched as a LeCarré-Deighton you-can’t-trust-anyone spy thriller set at the end of the Cold War which has been invaded and occupied by the second unit … since the plot is delivered in micro-gabble voice-over from a frame debriefing session, and is constantly being kicked into the corner to make room for set-piece fight scenes on the Oldboy/Ong-Bak/The Raid model as the heroine fights her way through hordes of stunt goons in restless long and distractions like a lengthy 1990s erotic thriller glam lesbian love scene between leading lady Charlize Theron (taking this sort of role perhaps in the hope of snagging a Taken/John Wick-style solo franchise) and a miniskirted French agent played by Sofia Boutella. For balance, I assume the next John Wick film will include a scene where Keanu Reeves has gratuitous sex with some French twink out of a Xavier Dolan movie.
The Kurt Johnstad script is based on a comic, The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, and revolves around the search for a mcguffin called ‘the List’ which is hidden on a microdot inside a watch and contains the names and details of all the secret agents working in Europe (though not some crucial information held back until the end). It’s Berlin, 1989, and the wall is about to come down – prompting an orgy of neon-and-leopard outfits, lighting and graffiti-spray that do more to evoke the movies of that era than the politics. The soundtrack is heavy on Bowie, drum machines and krautrock – though the Cat People theme and ’99 Red Balloons’ were hits earlier in the decade, and are beginning to feel like lazy screen shorthand for the 80s. After her sometime lover James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) has been zotzed for the magic watch by a KGB beardie (Johannes Johanneson), MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) shows up in Berlin with two small bags that apparently contain eight dozen costume changes. No sooner have we wondered whether red spike-heel shoes are advisable for a secret agent in transit than she needs them to stab some Russians who try to snatch her at the airport. She liaises with British Berlin section chief David Percival (James McAvoy), though she laments his ‘disastrous Sinead O’Connor hairsytyle’, but wisely refuses to trust him … and liaisons instead with French agent Delphine (Boutella – not as misused as in The Mummy, but still deserving better) while popping back and forth between East and West in search of the watch or – failing that – the Stasi would-be defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has memorised the List, which turns out to include the real identity of ‘Satchel’, a mole in British intelligence who everyone wants to get hold of.
At one point, she has a big fight with some KGB goons in a cinema screening Stalker. Occasionally, she watches the news – though the neon pipes in her hotel room cast an eternally irritating glare on the TV screen – and we get updates on how that Cold War is ending. In the frame story, an extensively battered and bruised Lorraine – she takes long cold baths in icecubes and no wonder – coughs up part of the story to her MI5 handlers – Toby Jones doing his act from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and James Faulkner as ‘C’ – and guest CIA agent Kurzfeld (John Goodman). America may be winning the Cold War, but the KGB agents we see have much more neatly groomed beards than Goodman’s – so, in the long run, who’s to say how it turned out. Remember that 1980s political thriller No Way Out, a remake of the ace noir The Big Clock? This has exactly the same sort of ending as that – where it all seems neatly tied up, and then there’s a whole new act undermining everything you saw (it even hinges on the same gimmick used in No Way Out – the identity of a deep-cover mole) and making you wonder why you bothered to care.
However, if you need to see Academy-Award-winning Charlize Theron doing a Tony Jaa impersonation – and an array of thumping, car-crashing, stabbing, shooting, kicking, gouging and bone-breaking, then Atomic Blonde has got the goods you crave.
(This scene obviously essential to understanding the complex political situation of 1989)
(Seriously, give Sofia Boutella better roles than this …)