Since its announcement in 2015, Atomic Blonde has been an intriguing concept. The source material, a graphic novel coined The Coldest City, is the genesis of a unique protagonist: a female James Bond. Gender equality has become a hot-button issue with regards to not only society at large, but also the film industry. While we do lack strong, female leads in Hollywood at the moment, this Charlize Theron-lead espionage thriller never comes off as preachy or condescending. Instead, its merits stand alone and do not rest on their own laurels; in the process, an exciting universe, and opportunity, has been birthed.
Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a member of the MI6, an infamous intelligence agency based in the UK. After a fellow secret-agent is murdered, Broughton is dispatched to Berlin during the height of the conflict between East and West Germany in 1989. Her mission is clear: find out who murdered her fellow agent and recover a secret list of MI6 double-agents that is located inside the face of a watch. She meets up with David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow MI6 spy that has been stationed in Berlin for some time, gathering intelligence for the UK and establishing connections with powerful criminals in the area. It’s only a matter of time before we learn that there is a double-agent in their midst, working for the opposition.
Atomic Blonde is nothing short of a roller-coaster fueled by adrenaline. Fight choreography from David Leitch, who also doubles as the film’s director, is visceral and, often times, unnerving. At many points throughout the film, I found myself wincing when someone’s throat was quickly jabbed with a knife or their own gun was used against them for a slow-mo headshot. If you’ve seen John Wick, it’s clear that Leitch’s style is unique and exciting as he has a knack for creating engaging, electric fight scenes.
On top of that, the movie has a distinct style that is simply breathtaking. The use of neon, shadows, and a pale palette allow carefully-selected colors to pop and set the tone of the scene. If you’ve seen a Nicholas Winding Refn film, expect a similar approach to detail– every frame is poster-worthy. The late-80s motif is evident throughout, cementing us in a specific time in history. The performances, across the board, are nuanced and well-executed. Theron, in the leading role, masters the art of the cold, focused spy, while McAvoy approaches his character more loosely, having fun, doing his job. The supporting cast doesn’t get in the way, but enhances the performances of our stars.
My main gripes have to do with a convoluted plot containing multiple double, even triple, agents, all trying to get their slice of the pie. A powerful reveal is muddied by the need to quickly explain concealed scenes that connect all the pieces in a clean way and, although creative, it detracts from the excitement you should feel in the last 10 minutes. This is where I think a film like John Wick is more successful: the plot is easy to explain and we connect with the main-characters, rather than trying to crack the code. The film also falls prey to the typical problem that most espionage films do: a boring protagonist. In order to do her job, Lorraine Broughton needs to be cold and distant, so that feelings and brash decision making don’t get in the way. The only trouble is that this leads to flat characters (in my opinion, like James Bond).
Despite my grievances, Atomic Blonde still comes out on top. It’s a new vision of what these espionage-thrillers can be and I look forward to what this universe has in store for us.
Matt: Watch Gabe: Watch