If this was based on a John Le Carre novel with a setting in eighties East Berlin, and principle characters were either undercover spies or double agents, then the tone would be bleak, low-key, with most of the dialog taking place in hushed tones on park benches or in half-lit back alleys. Even if it was shot in color it would still look black and white. And hardly a moment of action.
But Atomic Blonde is not Le Carre. It’s from writers of comics and video games, and based on an adolescent fantasy from a graphic novel. The setting may still be eighties Berlin, and the characters are certainly all spies, but at the center is a tall, leggy, blonde in stiletto boots, short skirts, garter belts and dark glasses. And she’s undercover. And of course, no one is supposed to notice her. Plus, there’s not a lot of actual detective work going on; no LeCarre cloak and dagger here, but there’s a ton of action.
The first we meet English MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is when she rises naked, battered and bruised, out of an ice bath in a London hotel. Clearly, she’s gone through hell and would rather forget what had happened to her, but there’s a job to complete, a report to file, and a secret interview in a small, dark room with a two-way mirror to attend.
“Berlin,” begins her boss, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), seated next to a top-level CIA agent, Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). “What happened?”
Told in a series of flashbacks, Lorraine relates the events of the previous ten days. The Berlin Wall is about to come down and alliances between powers are about to change. When an undercover agent known to possess a list of double agents between the superpowers is killed and fished out of the river, Lorraine is dispatched to Berlin to sort things out; find out who killed whom, get that list, and help smuggle a man named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) from the east to the west. From there, it all spirals out of control.
Director David Leitch, who before directing was a stunt coordinator and a stuntman, was no doubt part of the MTV generation, raised on eighties pop/rock and music videos. A concern of filmmakers from a previous generation was always that the eighties might produce a new breed of directors who considered promotional music videos and how they looked to be short films; they’d incorporate that flashy, surface, video style once given the green-light to make their own, full-length feature.
Atomic Blonde is a good example, which here is not altogether a bad thing – cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s imagery often looks stunning, plus the whole film is exceptionally well lit – but like most of those early music videos when MTV actually played them, there’s an absence of feeling; it’s all bathed in neon, with heavy doses of eighties pop/rock over substance while telling a simple plot and making it unnecessarily complex. As the story progresses, you’re never quite sure what you’re watching. But it looks and sounds great, and Lorraine can certainly kick a deadly stiletto.
As with Leitch’s previous film – he co-directed John Wick with fellow stuntman Chad Stahelski – the action is well-choreographed and furious. The physical combat hits hard, and lands with the force of an anvil thrown repeatedly to the face, with sound effects to support. Every punch is either a bone-snapper, a back-breaker, or a skull crusher. It’s a wonder anyone stood up after the first hit, but get up they do, and fight, and fight, and fight some more.
A later sequence, where Lorraine batters an East German agent, is a breath-taking affair. It begins up in an East Berlin apartment, then on the landing, then down the stairs, then in the hallway, eventually spilling out onto the streets, and still they get to their feet. It’s a stunning, brutal sequence, four or five minutes in length, filmed and edited with an impression that it was all done in a single take. It may dazzle, but seeing how the characters involved continue to run around once the fight is done, there’s never real power to the punch; like everything else, it simply looks good. Plus, knowing that Lorraine is actually telling this story back in a dark, interrogation room to her bosses in London, being concerned for her safety or wondering whether she’ll ever survive such brutality is never an issue. We’ve seen the bruises, but we know she’s really back in Blighty, talking about it.
The film can boast a great soundtrack. MTV songs of the day, remembered but now rarely heard, are often used not only for period atmosphere but to humorous, narrative effect as if certain lines are commenting on the action. In addition to the two German hits, 99 Luftballons and Der Kommissar, there’s The Politics of Dancing from Re-Flex, Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry, used when Lorraine turns up the volume to drown a conversation in a bugged room, and A Flock of Seagulls’ And I Ran where the line “Couldn’t get away” is timed to coincide with an enemy vehicle suddenly blocking Lorraine’s path during a car chase. Though using The Clash’s London Calling to represent a return back to the titular city yet again is really getting lazy.
Curiously, the version of Der Kommissar played is the English language version by After The Fire. You’d think while walking into a Berlin bar in the middle of Germany, the place would be playing the local Falco hit that topped charts all over Europe. A minor detail, perhaps, but it serves as a reminder that director Leitch was never going for LeCarre realism, even with the soundtrack. It was always MTV fantasy. In fact, when that Berlin wall finally comes down during the latter moments of the film, the television news reporting the event is a recording of Kurt Loder on MTV News.
Theron looks great, and her fight sequences and gun play are right up there with Keanu Reeves’ first John Wick, but she’s playing an empty cipher with a cultured English accent. There’s nothing at her center, and you’ll never know anything about her, she’s just there; a cold, deadly, icy blonde in thigh-high boots, straight from a teenage boy’s fantasy who’s taking a break from reading superhero graphic novels and turning to something that looks as though it might have gravitas – the Berlin wall setting works well – with a killer blonde at its center. But like Lorraine, the film may be an eye-catcher, but ultimately it’s equally vacant. Despite those killer kicks and a high-volume soundtrack, that convoluted plot really doesn’t help.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 115 Minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)