Charlize Theron’s latest film, “Atomic Blonde,” is aggressively stylistic. From the opening moments to the closing ones, it is a film focused on performance – the performance of the camera, the performance of the songs, the performance of the editing, the performance of the actors, and the performance of the characters.
Directed by David Leitch, the film is based on a graphic novel series and takes place in Berlin right as the Wall is coming down. Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent in Germany to recover a list of spies that could seriously jeopardize covert operations. To do this, Broughton must work with and against various individuals in Berlin, including a nearly-rogue British agent, David Percival (James McAvoy), and a mysterious Frenchwoman, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).
This maguffin is the single weakest aspect of the film. NOC lists and their ilk have been used innumerable times in films and “Atomic Blonde” is able to offer up absolutely no unique spin on the concept. It exists solely to put Broughton into Berlin, force her to go back and forth between East and West, and to allow for the action sequences to take place.
Where “Atomic Blonde” does shine, and shine brighter than many of its compatriots is with said action sequences. If you will forgive the slight vulgarity, Charlize Theron kicks ass, and she kicks it well. The action scenes which populate “Atomic Blonde” are ruthless and bloody and amazing, and Theron’s execution of them on camera is flawless. One gasps as they watch Broughton eliminate baddies through Leitch’s unflinching camera. It is almost beautiful in its brutality.
Throughout all of this, the film offers up a pounding soundtrack. Regularly there is music thumping in the background. In fact, music is so regularly used in the film that when it disappears, whether in an action sequence or during the course of a normal conversation, one sits up and takes note.
The Berlin tale is told mainly from Broughton’s point of view as she relates the story, after the fact, to her MI6 superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), as well as his counterpart from the CIA, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). This does eliminate a little bit of the punch of the film as everyone in the audience knows that no matter how dark things get for Broughton, she must come out of it on the other side.
This, combined with the poor maguffin, lead us to a plot that is, sadly, all too routine for a spy thriller. While one or two twists may manage to be a surprise, by and large one can identify exactly where things are going to end up in the movie early on. An attempt is made to not have the tale laid out before the audience by not having anyone stop to explain things ever, but those who are familiar with the genre will still pick out the twists.
Perhaps this is why “Atomic Blonde” is so relentless in its action sequences, so relentless with its soundtrack, so relentless in filling the screen with as much noise as possible. Perhaps it is an attempt to distract from the plot just as Broughton’s outfits at times seem calculated to distract those around her.
Leitch most definitely leans in to Theron’s attractiveness, consciously making her an object of desire whether in a camera shot that lingers over her as she is getting ready to go out, or in her being looked at by other characters. Some of the former moments do feel like they go a little too far or last a little too long, but certainly the film also offers the sense that Broughton is regularly, and consciously, in control of the image she is putting out, that she is using it as a means to an end with her work.
Whatever else it may be and whatever shortcomings it has, “Atomic Blonde” succeeds due to Theron’s ability to not just deliver a line compelling, but deliver a kick with equal force. She is an action star here clearly capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone and it is wondrous to watch her work. The film never shies away from the toll such actions would take on anyone, offering the bruised and battered results for the audience to see and that, too, is impressive.
“Atomic Blonde” is a fascinating amalgam of Cold War spy thriller and a stripped down actioner. It has its faults but is still more than worthwhile and we can only hope that it won’t be long before we see Theron in a similarly intense role again.
photo credit: Universal Studios