Focus Features 1 hour 55 minutes R Reviewed July 28, 2017
Atomic Blonde has a short fuse and packs a big bang. This smart, violent spy film is adapted from the graphic novel, “The Coldest City,” by Kurt Johnstad, Antony Johnston and illustrator Sam Hart. Charlize Theron is one tough British MI 6 agent as Lorraine Broghton operating during the Cold War. She is drop dead gorgeous, literally, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. It’s brutal from the get go. Russian agents make road kill of one agent right out of the box.
The setting is just before the fall of the wall in Berlin in 1989. Berlin was was being rocked on both sides of The Wall as violent protesters took to the streets.The world watched in horror as the East German Stasi police shot people trying to flee the Communist East seeking freedom on the other side of the wall.
There’s a list of double agents everyone’s trying to get their hands on, including Loraine and fellow MI6 agent David Percival, played by James McAvoy. They need to find an East German agent Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who knows the List and extricate him. Lorraine and Percival are willing to do anything and kill anyone to get it. The fate of hundreds of agents are on the line. If the Russians get the list, no one is safe anywhere in the world.
McAvoy as David Percival is sneering and sarcastic. There’a always a cigarette in his mouth and a gleam in his eye. Like everyone else in this shady cast of characters, he has a secret. Where is the list? Who’s telling the truth. Who’s going to get bludgeoned, beat up, stabbed or slabbed next?
Theron insisted on doing her own stunts. She worked with a number of trainers and did 98 percent of them but a double was used for the most risky because of insurance liability. Still, the actress suffered chipped teeth along with the bruises for her efforts and loved every minute of it. Theron got her action chops doing Mad Max: Fury Road and even stunt driving in The Italian Job. In this film she gets very creative using props, fighting with everything from stilletos, cork screws, hoses, rolling carts and more. Would not want to meet her in a dark alley.
Director David Leitch is a former stunt man and worked with Stunt Coordinator Sam Hargrave (John Wick) to make this film completely action-driven. The brutal fight scenes, especially the long one on the stairs, go on forever. They are planned out, choreographed and shot combining hand held with follow shots so well by Cinematographer Jonathan Seal (John Wick) that you might want to get up and take a punch at the screen, not that Lorraine needs any help. But you will feel like you’re right in the middle of it. The audience reacts audibly with grunts and groans along with each solid hit. The closeups of Theron are amazing and she even looks good beat up. Laughter emanated at a piece of comic relief when Lorraine’s cigarette is politely lit a la classic film Casablanca while that film’s signature song swells in the background.
The intriguing aspect of this plot is how the audience never has clear choices of how to root for. Everyone, including the audience, is always off balance. At various times we suspect everyone who could be a friend. Are Lorraine’s British bosses, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and Chief C (James Faulkner) setting her up? Are the Americans and their top spook, Emmett Kurzfeld, played by a stone faced John Goodman, cutting Lorraine loose so she can be cut down by the Russians?
Lorraine seems to get an ally in Delphine, a French secret agent played with a delicate touch by Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Servicer, The Mummy). The only tender moments you see are those between Lorraine and Delphine. This movie stars women who are definitely beautiful, but neither the sex nor the shots of their bodies are gratuitous. The clothes are classy and Lorraine’s look is always in control. The constant tension and the action continue to drive this film, far outweighing the beauty and the sexuality of these characters.
Five and a half years in the making, this is Director David Leitch’s first solo feature which he envisions to be the start of a Bourne-like franchise. He and Theron are already working on a possible sequel which could result in a trilogy.
The music for this film is hard Euro pop. The violence continues with musical background from such songs as “Major Tom” (Völlig Losgelöst) (Peter Schilling) “Voices Carry” (’Til Tuesday). And you will have the dinging theme from “Under Pressure” (Queen, David Bowie) ringing in your head as you leave the theater and for days. Director Leitch heard different pop songs from that era in his head as he read the script and played them on set to get the cast in the mood of those times.
This is one intensely violent movie about a spy with attitude who is one tough cookie running in the most dangerous circles during the Cold War. And it doesn’t seem to phase Lorraine or Theron one bit. It’s physical to the Max and much more falls than the Berlin Wall.