Empty Balcony: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is an aggressive title for a movie. By that, I mean it’s the type of title that can make a viewer immediately prejudge a film. I’m guilty of that. My expectations going into this film were that, at best, it would be a mildly entertaining, yet brainless, action flick. I was hoping for a shitty film, but was prepared for a just a plain old bad one. But, just as one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the same applies to film titles.

Atomic Blonde, an adaptation of Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, comes to the big screen courtesy of screenwriter Kurt Johnstad and director David Leitch. It stars Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, a Cold War MI6 agent who is tasked with infiltrating Berlin to retrieve a misplaced list of all the foreign agents employed by the west. Should the Soviets get ahold of the list, very bad things would happen to a lot of spies. Adding to the intrigue, the film takes places in November 1989, when East Germany and East Berlin were in political turmoil, leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It’s a great backdrop for a spy flick.

Being a comic book adaptation changes the approach viewers will end up taking towards this film. It’s not a bad thing that the film is an adaptation of a comic, but it does mean narrative rules are somewhat different. For one, a comic book movie generally has a MacGuffin, or an object that the good guys and the bad guys are hunting. It’s the reason for the plot, and comic book films can’t seem to get along without one. In this case, it’s the list of spies. One can also be rest assured that the fate of the world is at stake. In this film, maybe the stakes aren’t quite that high, but it’s only because there is a fair amount of cynicism among the characters. They are fighting the Cold War, but in the backdrop of chaotic Berlin, both the good guys and the bad guys struggle at times to figure out exactly what it is they are fighting for.

Besides being a spy flick, Atomic Blonde is also an action flick. Broughton isn’t just a field agent. She is an ass-kicker extraordinaire. There isn’t a Soviet agent in Berlin who doesn’t feel the pointy end of her spiked heels. Theron did a great deal of the fight scenes herself, but it would be remiss not to give credit to her stunt double, Monique Ganderton, and the film’s stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave. It was a team effort to bring Broughton to life.

When Broughton isn’t beating up on commies, she has to deal with the local MI6 station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy). According to the folks back in London, he’s gone native, working without much supervision. Percival is playing his own game behind Broughton’s back, and like a good spy, it’s never clear exactly what that game is until the very end.

The plot in a spy flick can get lost in complicated machinations, but Leitch made it easier on the viewer by providing loads of exposition. The film is told completely in flashback, from Broughton’s perspective, as she’s debriefed back in London. Sure, that may be a cheap way to keep the audience from getting lost, but a complicated plot would have only done damage to this film. The focus, as it should be, is on Broughton and her ass-kicking ways.

Theron plays Broughton as damaged and world weary most times, yet at others channels Joanna Lumley. As far as I can remember, she doesn’t smile once during the entire film. The first we see of her in the film, her body is bruised and battered from the goings on in Berlin. It’s a somewhat shocking visual, as Theron wasn’t shy about revealing her body. She looks like someone who got the stuffing beat of them. It isn’t until much later, during a spectacular long take climactic action sequence, that we see what those cuts and bruises had foreshadowed.

Theron was good in the film, as was John Goodman playing a CIA agent trying to find out what went down in Berlin. But McAvoy gave the best performance in the film. He played Percival both loose and wound tight at the same time, if that can be believed. One gets the sense that this is a man who holds far too many secrets than he is comfortable with, and it has warped his perspective of right and wrong. Is he concerned with his conscience? Does he even need redeeming? Is he being carried onward by events? Or is he manipulating everything? All the questions surrounding Percival ended up being more engaging than those surrounding Broughton. McAvoy’s performance gave needed life to the film when Theron’s character got a bit too dour.

Leitch’s direction was quite good. My only gripe is that there were unnecessary stylistic flashes peppering the film. It could get annoyingly flashy, but not as bad as a Guy Ritchie film at his most self-indulgent. The thing is, the film didn’t need it. It does just fine on its own without all the snazzy graphics and the soundtrack. The soundtrack is meant to establish time and place, but instead it feels more like Broughton is walking around listening to her favorite playlist. The backdrop of November 1989 in Berlin is more than enough to establish time and place without the overbearing soundtrack. Woe be to anyone who doesn’t have fond memories of late ’80s MTV. As further proof that the glitz was too much, there are long stretches without it, and it is not missed at all.

This is a good action flick. I was pleasantly surprised. Fans of Bourne-type or John Wick-type films will find a ready home, here. And the extended action climax alone makes the film worth checking out.