“I chose this life, and some day it’s going to get me killed…but not today.”
The subtle tension between two recurring, prevailing images provides the brutal spy thriller Atomic Blonde with both its spine and sense of purpose. Long range tracking shots trace the cool, confident, runway-ready stride of statuesque stunner Lorraine Broughton through the mad, pulsating streets of 1989 Berlin. Wrapped in a sleek trenchcoat, armored by sunglasses and a slight, possibly wry, otherwise impenetrable smile, hands buried in deep front pockets, her focus willful and unbroken, the gorgeous MI6 agent walks with easy purpose through a riot of humanity toward a destination that is only ever clear to her. In her most private moments, when the armor finally comes off, Broughton’s bare skin is far from the tantalizing perfection that might be expected, not cliched delicate porcelain so much as cracked china, shocking in its physical compromises and worn from overuse. Director David Leitch’s camera lingers for an uncomfortable, practically unseemly amount of time, cataloguing every scrape, bruise, and scar with almost loving care. Because Lorraine Broughton is played by Charlize Theron, a classic beauty and arguably the modern epitome of Hollywood glamour, Leitch’s repeated clinical examinations of her bruise-ravaged back, arms, and, eventually (and most painfully), face, are wildly incongruous with our expectations, and clearly calculated to elicit an emotional response. Who is this woman? And, after seeing her reduce a back room full of assailants to an assortment of strewn corpses in a dozen deft movements, who (else) could possibly want to $%^& with her?
Atomic Blonde is a repeated kick to the face, set up to run on an endless loop. See it on those terms alone and you might well find yourself riveted, and, during one particular extended sequence, delighted outright. Counterintuitively, the film also seems to fancy itself as something of a cerebral exercise, full of imperious inquisitors, quick cut, lame duck, Cold War intrigue, and double if not triple agents swarming the squalid tenement apartments and attendant back alleys of Berlin on both sides of a wall that won’t stand for much longer, sloppily executing ostensibly shocking quintuple-crosses when not engaged in the business of executing one another. This added ambition amounts to Leitch – who, it must be said, nails the delicate balance of earthy and ethereal embodied by the two dominant images described earlier, even as the scale slides ever more dramatically to the former over time – biting off far more than anyone with multiple facial contusions and a broken jaw should be able to comfortably chew. His fierce and resourceful protagonist fares demonstrably better, however worse for wear she comes out looking. To the degree I was willing and able to pay attention to the various plot machinations, I found them generally serviceable, surface level, and not a little boring. The movie only truly sings in its action sequences, particularly its scenes of gut level, close quarter, hand-to-hand combat. Operatic arias are in short supply here, however, replaced by a mixture of scuzzy blues interludes and full-tilt boogie.
Lorraine Broughton arrives in Berlin at the behest of her testy British MI6 minders at a particularly tumultuous moment, as all of Eastern Europe sways and buckles under the weight of the Soviet Union’s imminent collapse. A fellow agent – and, as it turns out, former lover – was executed by a KGB hatchetman as he attempted to shepherd a meek informant out of the steadily compressing city. Ostensibly there to investigate his death, Broughton’s main priority is, instead, the retrieval of a fabled secret list* compromising the identities and locations of every undercover operative on the green side of the Iron Curtain. James McAvoy co-stars as Broughton’s only contact in town, the plainly untrustworthy David Percival, a fellow agent so deeply embedded in derelict street culture, not to mention the East Berlin black market, that it’s a fair question to ask whether he realizes he’s technically still undercover. Though the otherwise effective trailers for Atomic Blonde showed enough foresight to at least hint at a romantic spark between the two spies, and though Percival does come onto her almost out of habit, Broughton is a no-nonsense kind of girl, which is just as well, since neither she nor the movie has particular need of, or time for, additional distractions (a sweaty dalliance with shadowy, not-so-secret admirer and former Mummy Sofia Boutella proves her only moment of weakness). Percival is in the talking business, and literally dodges a bullet through her disinterest. He may well be a killer himself, slick, opportunistic, and morally flexible, but she is a straight ahead killing machine.
*Action thrillers will never not need Hitchcockian MacGuffins to smoothly operate. This particular “thing everybody in the movie is desperately searching for” comes with a bit of a twist attached, and is contested for with such savagery that eventually it stops being half so important as a plot device as the various (remaining) principals’ overarching paranoia and latent bloodlust. Still, as a catalyst, firing the engine and then fading into obscurity, it does quite nicely.
As her story – told in flashback under the guise of an interagency debriefing/post-mortem – unfolds, the juxtaposition between Broughton’s extreme physicality and extraordinary but still comparatively workaday other physical qualities becomes ever more convoluted, and compelling. Into a breach exacerbated by the agent’s death, the informant’s escape, and the list’s continued existence has flooded in anticipation of Broughton’s arrival a torrent of gun-toting psychopaths of thick accent and dubious professionalism, who attack in belligerent, un-scientific waves and fall before her advances like mosquitos run through a bug-zapper. “The KGB made me from the moment my feet touched the ground,” she complains to her interrogators – officious MI6 bean counter Toby Jones and enigmatic CIA interloper John Goodman, with steely section head “C” James Faulkner (until recently Randyll Tarly on Game of Thrones) observing from behind a two-way mirror – “Maybe before.” Broughton’s past and background are left purposely vague – the better for odd revelations to flower at the film’s climax – but her ultra-efficiency as a weapon of mid-range destruction is established repeatedly and beyond any shadow of doubt. In a marketplace already choked with vengeful John Wicks, rampaging Scarlett Johansson table-turners, and a small army of murderous Liam Neeson variants, Atomic Blonde is still the most visceral, sustained gut punch of a movie in recent memory. Interestingly, the intricate camera work is just as vital to how the action lands as its reliably superb fight choreography, and becomes more fluid and showy the smaller the confines of a given battle become, without detracting or distracting from the proceedings one iota.
Everything comes to a head during the film’s bravura centerpiece, a strung-together sequence of escalating hostilities that takes Broughton, having finally rendezvoused with the informant and already wounded from a preliminary shootout, up and down several flights of stairs in a dilapidated apartment building, pursued by gunmen that start out hounds of hell but end up a trail of bloody breadcrumbs leading to the scene of what we only think is a climax – instead, it’s the first of several – where a squatter’s pad is utterly destroyed in the sorting out process between a fire-breathing Theron and a seriously kill-resistant big bad that reminded me of a blond, continental Jon Hamm. I have no doubt that the photography is abetted digitally in multiple places here, especially when the action abruptly shifts to the interior of a European sub-compact mid-chase, because the physics of it beggar disbelief otherwise. Broughton fends off and eventually dismantles two attackers in an enclosed venue the size of a love seat, the camera POV assuming whatever space is left unoccupied by the combatants as the action swirls around it like a game of musical chairs gone haywire. Leitch first made his name as an ace stunt coordinator and cements it here, with brilliant, precisely planned fistic architecture that would come off as patently absurd if its realization wasn’t so breathtaking. No matter how much of the final product is necessarily augmented, cinematographer Jonathan Sela deserves stunt pay for his efforts and ingenuity.
If everything before the ten-times fatal apartment encounter and subsequent ill-fated escape attempt was little more than stylish, oft violent, buildup, then what follows is air slowly escaping the balloon. Still, even in its comparatively listless moments, Atomic Blonde is never boring. It has a trashy noir heart that speaks to its origins as a graphic novel. Leitch directs the living hell out of everything on screen, and the distinguished cast of Cold War poker players is game for whatever comes, with McAvoy seeming to especially enjoy plumbing the slimier depths of Percival and Theron a rousing success at portraying both the ice maiden and more vulnerable aspects of Broughton, who, after all, is pitched as a simultaneous force of nature and center of gravity. Divided Berlin, a symbol of Communism’s insidious reach for the better part of five decades, makes for a particularly vibrant and unpredictable setting for mortal espionage, and Atomic Blonde brings the city to life – in part by keeping its focus at street level, on the unwashed and desperate inhabitants of its lower class haunts – like few screen portrayals I’ve seen. It is also a consistent pleasure to listen to, offering more 1980s pop and alternative diamonds – including stirring bookends by David Bowie – in a half hour of runtime than most entire soundtracks of the era. Atomic Blonde’s slow motion denouement is similarly informed by history and offers fireworks aplenty – figurative and literal, eye-popping and heavy-handed – though for a film that had a slight pedestrian feel before achieving momentary greatness, it almost can’t help but be a comedown from what came before. That kind of momentum is just impossible to sustain – for more than, say, an amazing twelve to fifteen minutes.
“Atomic Blonde” (2017) 3/4 stars