Published Aug 01, 2017How cool is Charlize Theron's Agent Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde? So cool that she first appears immersed in an ice bath, drinking vodka on the rocks. Cool enough that she barely blinks when she's told that her spy lover has been murdered in Berlin; so cool that she indiscriminately plunges corkscrews, keys and knives into the faces of enemy agents, then splatters their brains on the wall.
Yikes. If women are going to make it in the action-spy genre, one thing is becoming apparent: They have to be twice as brutal and emotionless as their male counterparts — and do it all in sky-high stilettos, like a homicidal Ginger Rogers.
It's 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to topple into history. Spies of all nationalities inhabit the city like rats, sniffing around for valuable information before the sledgehammers start to rain down — and it just so happens that all of their names are compiled in a list that will be sold to the highest bidder. Broughton's superiors at MI6 (James Faulkner, Toby Jones and John Goodman in easy, thankless roles) order her to infiltrate the city, fetch The List and uncover the identity of a Western mole called Satchel. Should she fail, they warn, the Cold War will be lengthened by "another 40 years." Hmm, I wonder what that would be like.
The List is a classic MacGuffin, necessary only for facilitating espionage and ass-kicking, but whatever. Theron kicks those asses with furious power and might, making guttural grunts and wheezes that women aren't usually permitted to make on screen. Director David Leitch graduated from stuntman to auteur when he co-helmed John Wick back in 2014, so he knows exactly how to weave in and out of the combatant's limbs. He stays with Theron in long shots as she battles persistent thugs up and down a staircase, or in a moving car, letting us feel the panic and adrenaline of each second — no anaesthetized, disembodied sparring here, but an actual throw-down hoedown.
If contemporary action films are too techy and clinical for your taste, you'll be thrilled by the tactile, old-school nature of Blonde — every blow reaches the back row. You also don't have to sit through an obligatory scene where a tech explains the features of spyware. This is vintage brawling skulduggery, and I'm here for it.
Press for the film showcases Atomic Blonde's soundtrack, explaining how it adds a thumping '80s heartbeat to the film — and that's true. I witnessed much subtle, contagious shoulder-dancing in the rows ahead during scenes featuring George Michael, Depeche Mode, Queen, et al. However, it's worth noting how intensely music is functioning as shorthand for tonal shifts or emotion in films right now. Watching Chris Pratt groove to "Redbone" in Guardians of the Galaxy or Peter Parker swing to the Clash in Spider-Man: Homecoming is fun, but it's getting to the point where you can almost hear the congratulatory slaps on the back as the first notes of a real banger start playing — if the song's a classic, the scene must be a classic too, right? There are too many musical cues packed into Atomic Blonde, and it's sometimes too cutely on the nose. Theron spins their heads right round, baby — until their neck breaks.
With clichéd dialogue, a convoluted story (with multiple endings), and momentum-robbing flash-forwards to Broughton's debriefing back in London, Atomic Blonde is by no means perfect, but I cannot stress enough how little this matters. It's all just so…cool. With shattering bones and waves of pink and blue neon light bathing each scene, the film manages to land squarely at the intersection of Die Hard and a Cyndi Lauper music video. Who wouldn't be down for that?