Atomic Blonde (2017)
It’s strange logic to think that hyper-violent female stereotypes might make up for decades of weak or absent women in movies but that seems to be the current thing. Opinions on this will differ of course, as they will about the spy-thriller Atomic Blonde (2017). If you like frenetic pace, classic noir-espionage styling, and more heroine-inflicted casualties per minute than some war movies, this one is for you.
Set in 1989 against the backdrop of the imminent collapse of the Berlin Wall, the convoluted hall-of-mirrors storyline is framed as a series of flashback episodes. Heroine and M16 top spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being interrogated by several bullying male superiors about an apparently failed mission to recover a microfilm list of undercover spies in Berlin. After the ultra-cool Lorraine recounts each separate phase of her mission we return to the interrogation for more questions which also help the audience make sense of it all. Narrative confusion is nothing compared to life in Berlin where nobody is what they appear to be and every spy she encounters is a double or triple-agent. The once trusted M16 operative in possession of the list has turned feral and Lorraine must get it back to London through a wall of Stasi, KGB, and French agents, and still finds time for a heart-warming lesbian encounter to show the softer side of a super spy. Along every corridor there lurks a gunman and every stairwell presents another opportunity for Lorraine to throw an enemy agent tumbling down in spectacular fashion. But who does what to whom and why is not as important as the car chases, explosions, shootouts, and a neat finale twist that even Hitchcock would have enjoyed.
While the narrative is stock-standard espionage and not a single character is vaguely likeable, the standout features of this film are the cinematography and choreography. A lot of the filming is on location in Budapest and Berlin, and the free-range camerawork is superb in capturing the frenzied atmosphere of Cold War espionage. The fight scenes are notable for more ignoble reasons: they are incessant, repetitive and possibly among the most inauthentic seen in recent times. Not only is it a stretch to see Lorraine take massive blow after blow without smudging her makeup, it can be tiresome to watch the heads of bad guys begin to turn a split second before the heroine executes another textbook martial arts strike. Many agents take a full barrel of bullets to despatch, but others keep popping up like the decapitated Monty Python knight who will not lay down. If attention wanes at any point, the ear-splitting soundtrack lifts the heartrate to required levels. As for the CGI and those bright red head explosions, don’t even ask.
For many, the phrase ‘Hollywood genre films’ is not complimentary and films like this show why. Maybe filmmakers need reminding that there is more to the portrayal of strong women than making them more violent than men. The gratuitous non-stop carnage at times brings this film closer to a gore mashup than a serious spy thriller. Some people will love the action but apart from great camerawork, this writer found little to commend.
Director: David Leitch
Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy