Conspicuous, gratuitous and more than a splash preposterous, the stylized Atomic Blonde, based on a graphic novel or comic book, moves too slow, picks up speed and ends up making a statement on the world. Like Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire and the cult-punk film Liquid Sky, Atomic Blonde employs 1980s’ New Wave, electronica or punk rock. It’s also in the vein of noirish movies about a femme fatale empowered through extreme use of force, such as La Femme Nikita, its remake Point of No Return and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Bloody, hyper-violent and hyper-realistic, Atomic Blonde plays the 80s tunes to infuse its Dirty Harry-type anti-heroine with a dash of embittered romanticism.
Surprisingly, it works, though it takes too long to get there and Kurt Johnstad’s (Act of Valor, 300) screenplay, based on The Coldest City comics by Sam Hart and Antony Johnston and directed by stunt man David Leitch in his feature film debut, badly needs editing. The plot defies description. The characters almost do, too, except as the body count rises, a band of players emerge in an apparently high stakes, 10-day Cold War spy showdown on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
In a platinum blonde ‘do, sexualized getups, thigh-high boots, pumps and low-tech accessories, Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Lorraine, the main spy. She’s called to London for an inquiry by superior Toby Jones (Frost/Nixon, The Painted Veil, Captain America). There, she tells a convoluted tale involving a secret list, gunplay and extreme fighting, nudity, Machiavelli, hedonism, lesbianism, a watchmaker, Soviets, East German Stasi agents, Brits and a Frenchwoman who may be an innocent youth. I told you it was convoluted. In fact, Atomic Blonde is overstuffed. Toss in ropes, knives and a peek at Larry Flynt’s raunchy Hustler and this slice of fetishized spy kink belongs in the rough sex trade genre with Harley Quinn, Sucker Punch and whatever emasculating fanboy fantasy’s playing on a device near you.
But the music punches almost as often as the spies, hinting that Atomic Blonde might have a point. With the Clash, David Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees on the soundtrack, sampling but not overdoing pouty, punk songs such as “Cities in Dust”, Theron’s vodka-drinking tough character starts to melt, just a little. Of course, her explicitly sexual encounter with Delphine (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) helps and not for the reasons you might think. No, Lorraine does not need to dress like a prostitute and neither does Delphine need to dress like a stripper but, then, KGB thugs don’t always bounce back so easily from keys being lodged in their faces, so you go along to some degree.
Featuring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class, Split, Rory O’Shea Was Here) as one of Lorraine’s Berlin contacts, Atomic Blonde shifts focus at its best with the propulsive energy of The Bourne Identity. This climaxes with amazing shots, camera work and touches, such as a thrilling car chase and the whipping sound of a cigarette lighter’s butane at the point of ignition.
Nearly every spy smokes cigarettes in this movie, which, with the unflinching ease with which the Westerners shoot to kill the Communists, is something of a throwback. Though John Goodman’s character grows more grating with every scene and could have been changed, edited or jettisoned, Atomic Blonde‘s elaborate fight choreography and graphic violence have a kind of realism lacking in most comics movies. You can tell who’s getting hit and you believe it’s real, for one thing. This star vehicle about what’s coming down and what’s not coming down in Berlin in 1989 nicely spins the punk Eighties’ ethos into bloody, bittersweet pulp fiction.