Yes, this is a spy film first and foremost. No one’s avenging a dead dog. No one’s pining over a misappropriated muscle car. The plot, though over-tangled, still counts as plot in comparison to Leitch’s previous work. In that respect Atomic Blonde certainly feels more mature than her bigger, brasher brother, John Wick. Though much less personal by comparison. There’s a scene between Broughton and a French agent – played by the lovely Sophia Boutella – where the MI6 agent confides:
“These relationships aren’t real. They’re a means to an end.”
Describing the fickle, exploitative life of a government agent, but also summing up succinctly the interpersonal relationships as written in the film. The two women end up in bed together, (Anatomic Blonde could have easily worked as a secondary title option here) reaching an end that should blight the retina of the common Christian, but a provocative end by any means it took to get there. However cursory.
As for Theron, sometimes I think we forget just how stunning a woman she legitimately is. A living beauty of truly rarefied air. In Atomic Blonde she gets to play fashion icon/manslayer. Of course, 80’s fashion was only ever a compliment if you were bone thin. The poets deemed this dress heroin chic. In the film Ms. Broughton’s beauty is less foxy, more frigid. More rigid. The presence of ice is everywhere in this movie. Theron piles it into her glasses of vodka. She hides a pistol in a bucket of it. She bathes in it. Twice. Ice being yet another fashion accessory in a film built to accessorize fashion. The alluring fashions of both cold, ethereal beauty and the heat of high violence.
To illustrate. There’s one fight in Atomic Blonde that takes place behind the screen of a scuzzy East Berlin theater showing Tarkovsky’s surreal Russian socialist/science fiction classic Stalker. In another scene Charlize’s character shoots a Russian agent in the head, perfectly glossing the pursed lips of a room-sized print of an Asian supermodel towering behind him in his blood. The tooth and nail combat in the foreground thus staged by classical paragons of art and beauty – including the music of the late, great, George Michael. (the melee set to Father Figure being a real highlight) In Special Agent Broughton’s story the violence is as much a fashion statement as the vintage Dior and Thierry Mugler dresses she wears.
Speaking of violence….
Hollywood stuntmen Chad Stehalski and David Leitch split the director’s chair for John Wick. They’ve since been contracted separately to make more films using that template. If their subsequent work is going to be a pissing match between friendly combatants in an effort to outdo each other’s action set pieces, I can’t help but believe that the stunt work from these two guys will only be helped by this spirit of competition. Though not on par with the frequency or creativity of the wet work in John Wick, Atomic Blonde has an action sequence so sophisticated and, frankly, intellectually overwhelming, it not only tops Wick in terms of execution, it’s up there with the very best in the action genre.
In this one scene our heroin-chic heroine lugs a Russian expat into an old commiebloc residence building to escape their KGB pursuers. In a single, eight-minute take (though I’m suspecting some level of editing chicanery was administered to sell the illusion of a single take) the atom-blonde fights her way through the stairwells and apartments of the complex, raining punches, hailing bullets, slashing with knives, burying corkscrews to their tee-hilt, in what certainly appears to be the fight of her life. It’s thrilling stuff. The choreography is admirably roughhewn. If feels desperate and improvised and, for a lack of a better term, scrappy, in a way sort of missing in John Wick’s fight structure. It’s the style of fighting that leaves split knuckles, busted open eyebrows, cracked teeth, exhausted lungs, and rheumatoid arthritis upon reaching the latter stages of life – if that season is even allowed in this line of work.
In the end Atomic Blonde only suffers in that it bears a razor thin story line it tries to mechanically manipulate in order to add a few extra corners to what is essentially a sex and violence stunt spectacular. For junior hipsters who fawn over the eighties as the second age of enlightenment this will be the easiest way to lose their collective minds at the box office this weekend. (I’d recommend this film as the B-side to a double feature with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) It makes the 80’s sexier than maybe they ever really were. For those of us of a certain age, we’re going to be easy marks for Atomic Blonde’s vintage new wave soundtrack and costuming decisions – there will be no escaping the pop culture appeals of our collective youth. Atomic Blonde certainly feels like a film you must surrender yourself over to. I promise it’s not so awful upon capitulation.
And that apartment building fight is as good as anything the action genre has produced this decade.