Genre: Action, Mystery, Thriller
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan
Runtime: 1h 55mins
She’s got more swagger than Dirty Harry and more fun spunk than a pair of Lucille Balls. She’s Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent who dresses to kill — as well as kill — with a singular and easy style. Quite simply, the lady knows how to wear it, and when that happens, you may as well pull up a seat and get strapped in for the show.
Don’t resist. It’s a guaranteed pleasure ride for a variety of reasons, most notably, Charlize Theron. The statuesque actor proved she had the muscle and sheer athleticism to take us down Fury Road, the re-imagining of Mad Max. Yet, she takes it to a whole different level as Broughton, the central heroine in Atomic Blonde.
Broughton is the embodiment of 1980s feminism: a secret agent with a Debbie Harry haircut and patent leather red stilettos. She’s also entirely of her time, because this whole fantasy is based on a 2008 graphic novel set just before the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Its fall 1989, and we find ourselves in the middle of a still-divided Berlin.
Director David Leitch (John Wick, Deadpool 2) gives us the bullet points in spray paint and stencil: The Cold War is about to end, all order is about to crumble along with the Berlin Wall, and the old-fashioned rules of espionage every agent understood are about to go down the toilet like so much cocaine in the middle of a bust.
Broughton is a creature of this milieu, but when she touches down in the divided city, she realizes there’s no safe zone. Even her partner, another MI6 agent named Percival (James McAvoy), is probably compromised — given all the graft lying around his apartment. This is a significant problem, since her primary mission is to recover a list of every agent known to the Stasi, the East German secret police. It contains the identity of every operative working in Europe, as well as a list of their dirty secrets, including hers — as well as Percival’s, and everyone else in the game.
The plot is Spy VS Spy genre. It’s the execution that makes Leitch’s film a little different because Theron owns it — figuratively, but also literally. Theron did every single fight move for the cameras after training with the stunt team responsible for John Wick. It’s a huge asset for the director, because we can get real drama in the same frame as real action.
Every scene is double-barrelled. All Leitch has to do is aim and shoot. The rest is a splatter-fest of plot, cranial debris and hyper-sexualized interpretations of life in Pre-Perestroika Berlin. The plot reloads at regular intervals in an interrogation room, where Broughton is being questioned by her English boss at MI6 (Toby Jones), as well as the CIA’s representative, played with jovial gravitas by John Goodman.
She’s the one offering the narrative, and the flashbacks that propel the story. Leitch brings them to life, with Broughton standing front and centre, letting us get lost in the beautiful chaos.
Despite the blood in your eyeballs violence, it’s a romantic waltz down memory lane for any X-Gen who remembers the era, with all its assumed sophistication communicated through black clothes and hair gel.
Theron nails the tone with her prowess walk, her inner charisma and androgyny that defined sexual power in that moment. Today, it almost feels strangely dated, which is another reason why it’s worth forgiving the film’s many flaws: It successfully takes us backward into a different head space — when the fall of Communism seemed to mark the beginning of a new age.
Atomic Blonde bleaches that optimism, reducing it to threadbare notions of nationalism and the odd, tongue-in-cheek wave. We can see through it all now. But then, it all felt so exciting and meaningful.