Atomic Blonde (2017)
Director: David Leitch
Writers: Kurt Johnstad (screenplay), Antony Johnston and Sam Hart (graphic novel “The Coldest City”)
Charlize Theron: Lorraine Broughton
Sofia Boutella: Delphine Lasalle
James McAvoy: David Percival
John Goodman: Emmett Kurzfeld
Toby Jones: Eric Gray
James Faulkner: Chief “C”
Sam Hargrave: James Gasciogne
Atomic Blonde is set in Berlin, 1989, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The opening scene provides a taste of the gritty brutality of the rest of the movie when good guy James Gasciogne, played by Sam Hargrave is pursued through the streets of Berlin, run down and murdered by a KGB thug, who eventually gets his in even more brutal style. Of course, part of the plot line is it’s really difficult to tell who the good guys are. In fact, there may be no really good guys.
Early scene: fade in on an icy stretch of water. Is it the Arctic–no, it’s a bathtub, and rising majestically from the ice are two very firm, taut breasts and rising from them are two every erect and lovely nipples, all belonging to Lorraine Broughton, crack MI6 agent, played by Charlize Theron. We will see more of Theron’s nipples, and most of the rest of her, which will help promote the popularity of this movie and all but guarantee a sequel.
She is sitting in an icy bathtub apparently because she and Gasciogne were lovers, and partly because she is bruised and beaten all over and will soon, wearing five inch heels, strut to MI6 HQ where she will be debriefed by Eric Gray, played by Toby Jones and Emmett Kurzfeld, a high-ranking CIA type, played by a grim, lean and bearded John Goodman, while James Faulkner, the apparent head of MI6 watches from behind one way glass. Sitting in an icy bathtub–she does this more than once–establishes Broughton as a very tough woman, as does the fact she either frowns or scowls menacingly throughout the film.
Part of the setting is the consistent use of 80’s tech, such as reel to reel recorders, and all outdoor scenes seem to be under gray skies, making the sets look gray, grim and communist, as indeed was the case for that kind of architecture. Fortunately, Director Leitch did not fall prey to making every scene look like it was shot with the illumination of a single candle. The movie is appropriately lit.
The plot is simple: Gasciogne had a watch, stolen by the KGB thug that killed him, containing the names and information on many agents. If that watch fell into the wrong hands…in other words, familiar spy plot.
When Daniel Craig took on the mantle of James Bond, the franchise changed dramatically. Much of the wry, self-mocking humor disappeared, and Bond’s world became much more gritty, violent, and brutal. Many pundits have tried to compare Theron’s Broughton with Craig’s Bond. There is only a single bit of humor in Atomic Blonde, a single, sarcastic/ironic comment by Broughton at the end of her debriefing. If anything, Atomic Blonde is even more gritty and brutally violent than any Bond movie. The Fast and Furious movies are essentially vehicles stitched together with ephemeral plot threads to allow outrageous car stunts. Atomic Blonde is a vehicle stitched together with somewhat more weighty plot threads to allow innumerable, and brutally violent fight scenes.
One might think Theron, who is tall-nearly 5’’10”–and lean, would not be up to the very physical and aggressive fight scenes, but she does well, and is convincing, in part because while beating or shooting pretty much every bad guy in East and West Berlin, she gets beaten badly herself, but ultimately prevails. She does not hit like a girl, and her fight training for the movie surely produced that. No doubt her early training in ballet–she won a scholarship for the Joffery–and her modeling experience helped her move convincingly. Equally fortunately, Leitch did not use the shaky camera techniques for fight scenes so often used to cover bad fight choreography, or because a director thinks it “edgy.” The fight scenes are cleanly filmed without frequent switches of perspective, and Theron sells them, even when stealing some of the Black Widow’s techniques from the Marvel universe, as Theron simultaneously wipes out groups of much larger men.
All is not violence, however. Just as Bond is a ladies’ man, so too is Broughton a ladies’ lady. She engages in a nicely filmed love scene with French spy Delphine Lasalle, played well by Sofia Boutella, who also has lovely breasts and erect nipples, lovingly filmed. The preliminary to their love scene, a close up kissing scene, is perhaps even more erotic. This too will make this movie a must-have DVD classic, and not only for men.
The movie is relatively fast paced, but in trying to set up various plot twists and betrayals, it is occasionally confusing. Even so, just when viewers think the movie is over, just after the only bit of partial humor, the scene suddenly switches to what appears about to be a love scene with one of the very bad bad guys. It appears Broughton is a traitor, but just when it appears to be curtains for her, she returns to the ice of the beginning of the movie and turns everything into a blood bath, killing at least seven or eight bad guys that are trying very hard to kill her. And the final plot twist is actually surprising. The bloodbath wasn’t it. Broughton never was what we thought she was. There is plenty of room for a sequel.
The music of the movie is very loud in general, and often, annoying, but it’s hard to tell whether Leitch thought this representative of the time and was trying to be realistic, or just likes blaring music. It doesn’t generally override the dialogue, but can be a bit too strident.
Production values are all up to contemporary professional standards. Sound, lighting, sets, props, costumes, all work well and fit at least the public imagination of the late 1980s. There are, however, a number of jarring disconnects.
The cast’s acting is first rate, though this is certainly not Shakespeare. There is little moralizing, and if one is looking for a hero wracked by doubt and guilt, they’ll have to look elsewhere. Broughton is all about the mission, and occasionally, tosses in a little revenge when it won’t compromise what she’s ultimately trying to accomplish. This is not a movie for those seeking the truths of the universe.
Immediately after getting off the plane in Berlin. Broughton’s cover is blown and she has to kill a man with the heel of her high heel shoe. Knowing that, she sticks around–no story without Broughton–and rather than dressing to fit in, generally dresses like a runway model, including almost always wearing 5” heels. Of course, she looks fabulous, but it’s not exactly a way to remain low profile, particularly when she knows every bad guy in the universe is out to kill her, including David Percival, the local supposedly good guy station chief, played with appropriate amoral sleaze by James McAvoy.
Theron’s handgun use is generally correct, but on several occasions she does a pinch check to ensure she has a round chambered. She does this with the weapon pointed down at the floor, chamber toward the camera, and retracts the slide within a millimeter of ejecting the cartridge, which is absolutely not necessary. One need only hold the weapon up so the chamber is visible and retract the slide only far enough to see brass. I suspect Theron did this at Leitch’s direction so the audience could see what she was doing. A small point, but for a women supposedly a deadly killer expert with firearms, an odd quirk.
It’s interesting that here is no backstory about Broughton at all in this movie, a movie told as a flashback from the beginning of her debriefing. However, the final plot twist suggests that would not have been possible. You’ll see. Broughton, from almost the first moment, is presented as a very tough and dangerous woman, and for the purposes of the movie, that’s really all the audience needs to know.
There is no question Theron has now established herself as an action star. She could credibly play alongside Jason Bourne, though she’d steal every scene. She’s a truly beautiful woman who carries herself with style, perhaps a bit too much for the role, but like the Bond films, one can’t expect complete attention to reality.
Some will certainly try to divine some male/female lessons from Theron’s performance. Don’t bother. She’s convincing as the hero, not heroine. Part of selling the movie is that Broughton is as capable as James Bond, a woman as good as a man. Yet, it’s easy to cheer for her. For those of us that appreciate strong women, Theron is now an example for debate. It works, it’s fun, no need to navel gaze about it.
Atomic Blonde is an entertaining movie, and Theron, an accomplished actress, carries it effortlessly. If one enjoys movie popcorn, it’s not a waste of money, though I suspect many would be just as happy seeing it, particularly several scenes, more than once, on DVD. I also suspect Leitch is counting on just that.