Charlize Theron Socks her way Into the Great Action Film Pantheon
DIRECTED BY DAVID LEITCH/2017
When it comes to crafting cool movies with serious stakes, the odds of being found out as an impostor are awfully high. The new actioner Atomic Blonde, based upon an Oni Press graphic novel called The Coldest City, by writer Antony Johnston & illustrator Sam Hart, is no less high styled than it is hard hitting. Seething at every pore with deadly attitude and retro visual flare, the film is an immediate panoply of fight choreography, black widow sexiness, and late 1980s American radio hits. From the outset it’s obvious that when the movie works, it will work exceptionally well. But nonetheless, one can’t help but ask, is this merely an undercover sting operation? Is this spy job really just a dye job?
Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British secret agent brought in from the field by her MI6 superiors (Toby Jones, James Faulkner), who are alongside a CIA honcho played by John Goodman. She will make you look, make you bleed, and break your jaw for good measure. Whether all of those attributes are ideal for someone doing high stakes undercover work is questionable, but this being a modern exploitation throwback of sorts, it’s all in all permissible. Stuntman-turned filmmaker David Leitch (John Wick) makes sure of that, quite assuredly.
In this role, supposedly one that Theron’s pushed to fruition over the course of several years, she relentlessly shines – even with the shiners.
Routinely covered with bruises and cuts, Broughton soaks in a bathtub of ice-filled water. Emerging lean and bluish, long chunks of the movie photographically match her exposed hue and topography. Set primarily in West Berlin just prior to the fall of the Wall in late 1989, Atomic Blonde adopts a curious yet somehow appropriate blend of the muted gun-metal blue palate so popular in action films throughout the 1990s (see Payback, The Saint, Blade, etc.) with late the 1980’s Miami Vice-style pink and blue neon vibe. Layer on top of that a highly intentional sort of “punk” sheen (locations are identified in faux spray-painted text, always in popping primary colors) and retro sensibility (the closing credits look like they’re shot off of an old grayscale computer monitor), and it’s clear that the film’s historical setting and political overtures are the true window dressing. This is a film about bluntly displayed rock n’ roll badassery, period. With dashes of dark fun.
All of which kicks the door open to accusations of style over substance. To do so is to miss the point of this particular film, the rare specimen that manages to get away with such flair. Branishing a late Cold War espionage plot, set in one of the era’s most volatile of places, any earnest attempt to follow Atomic Blonde‘s barrage of spy jargon and names, names, names is likely a futile exercise. The macguffin is a list of covert double agents that must be recovered before the Soviets get it. (Good to have you back as official movie baddies, Russians! On behalf of hostile space aliens and corrupt aging white guys in suits everywhere, you’ve been missed).
Engraved wristwatch cogs and a man with a photographic memory called Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) come into play. James McAvoy, playing an entertainingly skeezy fellow agent, is an unshakable presence. Frankly, the plot and it’s many off-shooting bits and players amount to the kind of pointless info barrage common to any given Bond film – density in the name of validity, once upon a time justification for all of the running around, fighting and shooting. In this case, it all happens in fabulous heels and designer skirts. Eyerollers must simply deal with it – Wonder Woman did the same thing, but never drew blood. Or wore fishnets…
It takes a while for Atomic Blonde (a silly title, that in retrospect, only applies for all the wrong reasons) to truly prove itself. A fight scene when Broughton must flush out a pack of enemy shooters in a dilapidated building successfully measures up to such high water marks as The Raid and True Romance. It is one for the ages, solidifying Theron’s place as one of the great contemporary action heroes. And it’s not the only wildly impressive such scene in the film.
In this role, supposedly one that Theron’s pushed to fruition over the course of several years, she relentlessly shines – even with the shiners. Age having no effect on her, she possesses both a no-nonsense maturity and an insanely agile martial arts and hand-to-hand combat mastery. She is the real thing, proving herself at every turn, be it a teeth-smashing kick-fight, a brazen lesbian love scene (with a youthful French agent played by Sofia Boutella), or simply observing the goings-on around her. This is a film that is truly in love with Theron’s face, though more than game to run it through the wringer.
The film’s glaring use of needle-dropped radio hits, many of which are correctly in the timing of the storyline, is among the film’s earliest red herrings. Like so many multiplexers of the moment that opt for familiar tunes to punctuate select moments, Atomic Blonde goes in for the familiar. Expediency of recognition is one thing, but when the song in question has already been appropriated by Quentin Tarantino (in this case, David Bowie’s “Cat People”, used magnificently in Inglourious Bastards) the filmmaker runs the real risk of reminding us of a better movie from the outset. In spite of that, though, the song is a perfect fit, maybe too perfect.
A fight scene when Broughton must flush out a pack of enemy shooters in a dilapidated building successfully measures up to such high water marks as The Raid and True Romance.
Again and again, the jukebox serves up the songs that so many of us grew up on, stateside. It’s a terrific soundtrack in its own right, to be sure, and one that gets the job done. But, this being Berlin, one of the most consistently happening hubs of innovative music, wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense for the bulk of the songs to hail from the German music scene? Is Atomic Blonde pandering to Western audiences that transparently?
Perhaps to make up for that, just a little bit, Tarkovsky’s film Stalker gets a prolonged shoutout for one sequence. (Speaking of reminding us of a better movie…!) The posters for the film in around the East Berlin Kino theater are so many that one wonders who the big fan was behind the scenes of Atomic Blonde, and whether or not citizens would be literally lining up for the 1979 classic ten years later. At any rate, the inclusion is most fortuitous, as the film just became available at long last on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.
The sheer bravura of Atomic Blonde is something to be admired, however one lands on the movie as a whole. If it shied away from it’s forceful violence, occasional nudity, and all-out swearing, it would lose its own raison d’être. Those who prefer their summer action films to remain at PG-13 levels of objectionable content best sit this one out. But for those hungry for a potboiler with both teeth and chops, Atomic Blonde ultimately fulfills its mission.
Could it be that Atomic Blonde itself is, all the while, a double agent, posing as yet another forgettable, derivative actioner? Director Leitch sees to it that the movie actually turns out to be its own doppelgänger, a deceptively tough-toothed killer, both curvy and sleek. Whether you’re looking to come in from the cold or come in from the heat, Atomic Blonde is a bombshell you won’t soon forget.