Film, 2017, 4.5 stars
Let’s talk about how Charlize Theron has carved a third successful career (after her well-proven dramatic and comedy chops) playing some of the most bad-ass female action characters that have ever emerged on film. List off the films - The Old Guard, Mad Max Fury Road, Aeon Flux, The Fate of the Furious, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus - even in crap films she’s usually the most dynamic actor in it.
As soon as I saw the trailer for Atomic Blonde I knew I had to see it. I mean, the woman who would hands-down be the best possible first female 007 throwing that honourable “for Queen and country” crap out the window and playing a scrappy and cool Mi6 agent who lives and dies by her own rules? Come and get me.
Even without Charlize Theron this film would have been interesting. With her, it is iconic. Lesbian films are usually so dramatic, so emotional, all about feelings and intellectualism, and so often one of them dies of some awful disease. Or they’re pretty, sudsy comedies. As much as I love so many of those films, this intense, violent, sexy film was a relief and a revelation. Not since Bound have we seen anything like it.
It has a pretty madhouse plot, and you’ll never guess what she’s really up to so don’t bother trying. Just don’t blink or you’ll miss something important. She brings emotional depth to what could otherwise have been just another bland, violent spy movie. Her every look is a hint, or a red herring. Nothing is accidental.
Theron plays British spy Lorraine Broughton (what a freaking British name!), who is in Berlin in the 80’s in order to locate a double-agent who is shopping a list identifying undercover Mi6 operatives. (Seriously? This is my only gripe - it’s been a Bond plot, a Charlie’s Angels plot - stop making goddamn lists of undercover agents people!) Hundreds of lives are on the line, and she is the only girl for the job.
The film takes the form of an after-action interrogation. Lorraine relives the plot after the fact and explains her version of it to her Mi6 handlers and one rather shonky CIA boss. Her attitude is pure sass, and even bloodied and bruised, her poise is impeccable. Is any of what she says true? Hard to say really. They, and we, don’t know what to believe. She’s both the most believable and most unreliable of narrators.
We learn that Lorraine has a personal connection to what’s going on, something driving her underneath, which is never fully explored, but it helps us to know that the despair she feels and sometimes reveals is real. While she mostly seems fully in control, there are moments we’re sure she’s losing it just that little bit, but later we realise we, and her prey, were just meant to think that.
Her dalliance with French spy Delfine (Sofia Boutella) at first seems instinctive, a rare misstep in the normally business-as-usual routine. I like to think perhaps at first it was a sidestep into lust, but Lorraine figures out a way to use it all to her advantage. It’s hot as hell though, Theron and Boutella give it everything, and having her be queer just adds a whole other unexpected dimension to the character.
One of the most amazing things about Lorraine is that she’s never surprised by betrayal. She expects it at every turn, which is both a handy survival skill and a sad condition. She handles double and triple crosses with aplomb, always instinctive, but never reactive.
Based on a comic book by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, and brought to life by Director David Leitch, Atomic Blonde is both ice cold and fiery red, and cinematographer Jonathan Sela makes sure we know this throughout as he employs both colour schemes to reflect the inner and outer worlds of Lorraine. The city and era, Berlin days before the Berlin wall fell, is like another character. She’s dirty, evocative, sexy, industrial, alive, anxious, and violent. Also, let’s not forget the pumping new wave soundtrack, it’s note perfect.
Atomic Blonde is that rare and wonderful thing in an action movie - one where a woman gets to use what makes her uniquely female in order to get the job done. It wouldn’t have worked if it felt like they were just writing an action flick and replacing the man with a woman. This character needs to move, breathe, and think like a woman to win. It’s her femininity that gives her the edge.
Between Theron’s sweet moves, that thumping soundtrack, the hot woman-on-woman action, and the ultimate twist in the tail you don’t see coming, this is a film that deserved more heat on release than it got. Perhaps there’s some truth that men won’t go to see women in action films, perhaps this was always destined to be niche.
Whatever the reason, if you’re into spy-movie or comic-book action, do not let this phenomenal film pass you by. It’s not deep, but on a pure entertainment level it’s fulfilling as hell. This would have been a five star film with a talented female director at the helm to add some more nuance to the sometimes convoluted plot and to really take advantage of Theron’s talent. I dream of what something like this could have been with a Kathryn Bigelow-like skillset at the helm.