The superspy stylishly turns in the fight, shoots, splatters red blood onto the glossed lips of a face on a poster.
I'm sitting in a car with friends I've known since the 1980s, at the Docks Driving Range and Drive-In, a relic of the Cold War era nestled in the Port Lands, the last seedy waterfront section of Toronto, between the gentrified Harbourfront and the Beaches, and I'm watching a film shaped by the Cold War, 80s music videos, noir cinema, and Hollywood's desire to set up bigger, sexier, more violent thrills.
As Debbie Harry sang with studied vacuousness, "Your hair is beautiful. Atomic."
The film then, is Atomic Blonde, based on the graphic novel, The Coldest City. It begins with a clip of Ronald Reagan demanding that Mr. Gorbachev "Tear down this wall!" As the Cold War crawls to a close, MI6 needs a super-spy to locate a list of active double agents. James Bond isn't available in this film reality. No matter: they've got someone better. Her name is Lorraine Broughton, and she's played by a trained and muscular Charlize Theron.
Spies can never really trust anyone. This mission amplifies that distrust, since every double agent in existence wants her mission to fail. In particular, Broughton has to keep an eye out for Satchel, a duplicitous operative planted so deep no one has any idea who he or she might be.
Atomic Blonde makes for an interesting experience. A perfect, persistent 80s soundtrack permeates the film, and the visual images, with their mix of washed and popped colors, recall that strangely decadent decade that looked and sounded more like the twenty-first century than the actual twenty-first century. The darkness and muted tones suggest film noir, but a noir always half-lit by bright neon and luminescent blood. The Cold War characters inhabit a period music video. They smoke and bleed as the bass pounds and the guns fire and they try to keep a step ahead of their uncertain enemies and allies. It's a violent and synthetic world, scored with synthesizers and electric drums.
Atomic Blonde wants to be a sexier, more violent, female James Bond movie. Even James Bond, however, reveals personality and motive and gradually, he engages us. We want him to win. Charlize Theron gives a strong, stylized performance, but I have no sense of who Lorraine Broughton is or why I should care about what happens to her. Her one sexual relationship features fewer preambles than a Bond Girl pick-up. They start making out during an interrogation and suddenly share a bed. Whereas the contact in question is male in the source material, here it's another woman, supposedly because the director wanted to make this spy movie different from other spy movies. Of course, what any given viewer makes of a stylishly superficial lesbian relationship in a deliberately exploitative movie written and directed by men is another matter.
The movie tells most of Broughton's story in flashback so we know she'll survive. It hardly matters. She has Batman level fighting skills coupled with Rorschach's inhibitions about killing. Despite the ultraviolence and spy intrigue, I never felt like Broughton was in any real danger.
All the characters, in fact, feel like chess pieces, despite the efforts of a strong cast. While this approach might suit a spy film about the Cold War, it impedes immersion and enjoyment.
Atomic Blonde is a beautiful, violent, death-filled work of art. The settings showcase the seedier sides of an east and west Berlin that surely must have been somebody's dream, or nightmare. The twisted, confounding plot makes sense once you've seen the final twists and, in the context of the Cold War, it almost seems plausible. I'm sure it will inspire a visually clever videogame. I liked it, to a degree. I simply couldn't care enough about it.
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Adapted from the graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart
Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton
James McAvoy as David Percival
John Goodman as Emmett Kurzfeld
Eddie Marsan as Spyglass
Toby Jones as Eric Gray
James Faulkner as Chief
Sofia Boutella as Delphine Lasalle
Roland Møller as Aleksander Bremovych
Bill Skarsgård as Merkel
Sam Hargrave as James Gasciogne
Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson as Yuri Bakhtin
Til Schweiger as Watchmaker
Lili Gesler as Helena
Barbara Sukowa as Coroner