Atomic Blonde is a big-budget ultra-violent spy thriller featuring a mesmerising uberkool Charlize Theron as an arse-kicking M16 agent. Entertaining and fun.
Check out the trailer and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Atomic Blonde. That is, much the same as from any big budget Hollywood blockbuster action thriller: spectacular ultra-violence (guns, fists, knives, a corkscrew, whatever), car chases, nudity, sex, a thumping soundtrack… need I go on? But Atomic Blonde has one big asset that sets it apart, and the filmmakers know it – Charlize Theron!
She’s hot, she’s kool, the camera loves her. She’s mesmerising to watch, with her platinum-blonde hair and sunnies and heels and high-fashion gear. And she kicks arse better than any man in the movie, performing most of her own stunts and no doubt drawing on her ballet dancing background in the many physically demanding and choreographically complex fight scenes. She’s on screen most of the time, and little wonder. The filmmakers know where their bread is buttered.
The story, adapted from a graphic novel, is set in divided Berlin of November 89, just before the Wall came down. Elite M16 spy Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is sent to East Berlin on a high stakes mission to investigate the killing of an embedded Western spy and locate a top secret list of double agents before it falls into enemy hands – or something like that. The story is basically a grab bag of spy tale clichés, and so full of twists, double crossings and agents flipping sides it’s not easy to follow. Truth to tell, it doesn’t matter. The narrative is really not much more than a framework to support multiple violent encounters between Lorraine and her adversaries. And showcase Charlize as she blasts, chops, stabs, jabs and punches her way to superstardom via some tremendously shot, choreographed and performed fight sequences.
Director David Leitch has a stuntman background and had directorial input into the first John Wick movie, so it’s no surprise that the fights in Atomic Blonde are brilliantly handled. However, he hits new heights here, eschewing CGI for expert camerawork and meticulously plotted choreography. There’s a stunning 10 minute fight on a stairwell towards the end of the film that appears to be shot in one take, unedited (not actually the case, as Leitch reveals in this interview).
The execution of this violent sequence beats the hell out of anything in John Wick (yes, big call), and it’s not only down to the cinematography and choreographic conception and direction. Wick is a fighting machine; his ludicrous indestructibility detracts from the tension of his fights. When the stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde enters its final stages, Charlize and her opponents (those few left alive) are visibly exhausted, barely able to stand. There’s at least a semblance of humanity here, which brings with it the suggestion that the lead character is fallible, even if the result of the fight is never in doubt.
And whereas Keanu Reeves is all dopey machismo as John Wick, Charlize’s portrayal of Agent Broughton is informed by a sort of trash pop culture awareness that is far more endearing. There’s a hint of irony and self-sendup that is so subtle it’s barely there. Or maybe it’s simply an absence of preciousness. Charlize is as glam as it gets in this, but has no problem getting down and dirty and wearing the unflattering evidence of her bloody encounters on her face (for half the movie she sports an unsightly bruise from a heavy smack to the side of the mouth), or showing that she’s buggered at the end of a gruelling fight sequence. In other words, the violence in Atomic Blonde has consequences for the lead character. Not so, in John Wick.
While Charlize is the strongest of female leads in a role traditionally reserved for males, Lorraine Broughton is no role model (thankfully). She’s glazed-eyed from the vodka she socks down, makes smoking look cool again (who but Charlize could do that?), lies and deceives, exercises her license to kill with the cold disregard of a psychopath, and is sexually aggressive, bedding dishy French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella) in a veritably combustible 15 second scene of lustful gratification. Not one to take young teens to, then, although they’d probably love it.
Atomic Blonde is blockbuster action-thriller bubblegum for adults. It’s fun and entertaining and driven by a rockin’ soundtrack that could well double as a definitive 80s rock mix-tape. And Charlize is da bomb. That’s all you gotta know.
Atomic Blonde features: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Director: David Leitch
Writers: Kurt Johnstad (screenplay), based on the Oni Press graphic novel series The Coldest City written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart
Runtime: 115 min
Australian release date: Atomic Blonde in Australian cinemas from 3 Aug 2017
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