If Atomic Blonde achieves anything it is that the film, from stunt coordinator-turned-director David Leitch, thoroughly cements Charlize Theron’s status as one of the premiere action stars in cinema today. Fresh from The Fate and the Furious, having dominated too Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron owns the film from stilettoed start to erudite end. An excuse for a cornucopia of action set pieces, Atomic Blonde offers fun aplenty along the ride, even if as a whole the complete picture never quite satiates the appetite wishing for just a bit more oomph to its plot.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton. A top tier agent for MI6, Lorraine is sent to 1989 Berlin following the death of, fellow British spy, James Gasciogne in order to retrieve ‘the List’ – a document, concealed within a wrist watch, containing the name of every undercover agent in the Soviet Union. An impressive supporting cast boasts Toby Jones and John Goodman back at base, framing the action with a debriefing interview, the realtime to the flashback that fills the plot, to review Lorraine’s actions through the film. James McAvoy plays Percival, Lorraine’s point of contact in Berlin, whilst Sophia Boutella – fresh from The Mummy – joins the action as, naïve French agent, Delphine. To complicate the mission, Lorraine finds herself too up against ‘Satchel’, a spy in the ranks betraying allied secrets to the Soviets.
There’s a Matthew Vaughn does Tinker Tailor feel to Atomic Blonde. 1980s Europop dominates the soundtrack, set pieces and dialogue alike for both establishment of setting and the hell of it. In one scene a character even announces that ‘Everyone here is searching for something’. This ‘too cool for school’ screenplay- all ‘cock suckers’ and ‘spy shit’ – comes from 300 franchise writer Kurt Johnstad. Semipermanently dogged with expletives, characters are always on hand to make some sardonically knowing comment, followed swiftly by a healthy overdose of exposition: ‘If the Russians get that list we’re all buggered’.
The film itself is based on a 2012 graphic novel, ‘The Coldest City’, by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, the result being a highly stylised – terrifically so- yet slightly adolescent adventure. Sure it’s great to displace the James Bonds and Jason Bornes of the genre with a strong female spy and character but there is an unavoidable sense of this being a little too entangled within the realms of the ‘male fantasy’ to qualify as feminist masterpiece. Platinum blonde and strikingly dressed throughout, Lorraine has the appearance of a Tarantino-esque icon. She beats up a succession of male bad guys with high-healed designer footwear and at one point is almost undone by a foe’s ability to utilise her clothing against her. Midway through the film Lorraine gets intimate with the only other female character in the film (‘So you made contact with the French operative?’) and, by the end, there is little room for doubt that, abound all her victorious independence, she remains subordinate to the command of a higher ranking man. ‘If I knew he was going to call the police,’ says Lorraine, ‘I would have worn a different outfit.’
It is, however, thanks to Theron’s powerhouse presence throughout that the character does still work quite so electrically and manages to be unfailingly absorbing in the face of the far fetched.
Betraying Leitch’s origins in stunt work, there’s no questioning the quality of the action in Atomic Blonde – watch out for a superbly executed one-shot climax. The quantity’s there in abundance too. No, it is the lack of heft in between that slightly spoils the party, never quite satisfying the undeniable potential.
Given plenty to play with on the surface, Theron’s enjoyment of the espionaction is infectious but you’ll be hard pressed to remember it all by the end of the year.