Giving audiences “the female version” of a particular film or genre can be a tricky proposition. Often times, filmmakers try to mimic the standard male version, simply substituting a female lead in place of a male one, which ends up seeming farcical and inaccurate. Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, knows exactly how to approach the idea of a “Female James Bond” spy action-thriller, creating a uniquely fun and sly femme-action experience, guaranteed to thrill audiences.
The story (based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City) follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), who is assigned to Berlin on the eve of The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. Lorraine’s colleague (and former lover) was killed on assignment smuggling a list of covert agents and secrets out of Berlin, making the list a hot target of British, American, and Russian covert agencies. Lorraine is assigned to pose as a lawyer, infiltrate Berlin, recover the list, and kill a double agent who has compromised the mission.
The moment Lorraine sets foot in Berlin, however, things go sideways. The KGB and German police are on her heels almost immediately; her contact, Percival (James McAvoy), is an unstable, unreliable, and untrustworthy ally; and a mysterious girl named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) is always lurking in the shadows, watching Lorraine’s every move. As the tough and cunning MI6 agent tries to use every weapon at her disposal to complete the mission, she finds herself increasingly on a side all her own, as everyone seems to want to double cross and/or kill her. But trying to kill Lorraine Broughton and actually doing it are two very different things – a lesson that cops, gangsters, and assassins all learn the hard, brutal, way.
Atomic Blonde comes courtesy of John Wick co-director David Leitch, whose next film is the equally anticipated Deadpool 2. With Atomic Blonde, Leitch showcases a good sense of cinematic vision to go along with his impressive fight/stunt choreography, while also showing off a nice sense of humor, and a some unique stylistic flare.
Atomic Blonde is staged, shot, and put together better in a way that clearly demonstrates the fact that Leitch is more than a director who excels at stunt work. This film is, in many ways, his stylistic debut: that moment where a director discovers his/her own unique vision and voice. As stated, a lot of the non-action moments of Atomic Blonde are staged and shot in a way that feels cinematic and artistic, with Charlize Theron (and all of her impressive physicality) serving as a major part of the canvas.
In terms of action, Atomic Blonde delivers good old-fashioned stunt feats and choreography. A lot of the sequences are delivered in long takes, with the actors and stunt teams thoroughly and convincingly committing to the physical performance. Instead of almost superhuman durability for the main character or villains, the film also takes the novel approach of making the performers’ actual fatigue part of the performance. Some of Atomic Blonde’s best sequences (see: the climatic fight/escape scene) involve battered, breathless and tired actors limping or staggering after one another, still trying to carry on the fight. Leitch also plays with angles and perspective to turn oncoming action into something akin to horror movie jump scares – as assailants come out of left, right, or background to attack in relentless waves. The end result are kinetic and frenzied action sequences that never let things rest, until the action is done, and the assailants are dead, disarmed, or severly beaten down.
On the other hand, the story by 300 writer Kurt Johnstad (adapting the graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart) falls into the classic trap of telling an overly convoluted spy/espionage story, with so many double-agents and double-crosses that it’s hard to keep straight what’s going on, moment to moment, and what the character motivations are. The narrative approach (Lorraine being debriefed after the mission, with most of the action occurring as flashback), doesn’t help to keep things clear = and the big ending twist(s) therefore don’t hit as hard as the film may have intended. Still, there are a lot of subversive themes and humor at work in the film – but many of them get lost in the violence and noise the first time around. To its credit, Atomic Blonde is the rare action movie that begs for a serious rewatch, in which the viewing experience will arguably be even deeper and better.
Charlize Theron is already one of the most beautiful and acclaimed actresses on the planet – so it’s only natural she adds “badass action star” to her resume, alongside “Oscar winner.” Theron is a veritable force of nature in the film, using her long, supermodel physique as a weapon of seduction and violence that sizzles the screen, while her icy demeanour and wit creates the kind of “cool” that James Bond would envy.
The ensemble of actors backing up Theron all jump into their respective roles with equal vigor. X-Men’s James McAvoy is a scene-stealer as Percival, walking the perfect line between lovable cad and unscrupulous scumbag, in order to keep you guessing. Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) is charmingly sexy as Delphine; top-notch character actors like Eddie Marsan (Ray Donovan), Bill Skarsgård (IT) and Rolan Møller (A Hijacking) make the operators of the Berlin spy world into dynamic big parts; while veteran actors like Toby Jones (Captain America), James Faulkner (Da Vinci’s Demons) and John Goodman bring gravitas and humor to their respective low-key roles as the agency bureaucrats Lorraine reports to.
In the end, Atomic Blonde is a femme-action movie that the ladies will actually enjoy every bit as much as the guys do – thanks to a standout performance from Theron, and a director who understands how to make a female action hero shine in her own, well-toned spotlight. It’s definitely a film that fans of the genre want to check out, and leaves plenty of room for Lorraine Broughton to step into a wider franchise space, once reserved for the Bourne’s and Bond’s of the genre.
Atomic Blonde will hit theaters on July 28th. It is 1 hour 55 Minutes long and is Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.