By Liam Lacey
In Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron stars as an elite British spy who is sent to Berlin on the eve of the end of the Cold War. The movie is dark, tacky and empty as a vintage Duran Duran video, full of neon-lit nightscapes, fashion bars, models with guns and cloying eighties’ music.
It’s also a perfect movie for people who love to watch Theron hit people, hard and often.
Adopting a razor-banged blonde wig, sooty eye-shadow and a sultry English accent, Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a chain-smoking, Stoli-drinking vixen who slithers in and out of ice baths and fashionable clothes and seems to be instantly identified by every friend and enemy she meets. But if her spy-craft is dodgy, Lorraine is really good at hitting people. The punching, walloping, slamming and kicking takes place in a succession of fiercely choreographed fight scenes, where she shows off her chops like an arena rock drummer.
The movie, which was adapted from a 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Antony Johnstonand Sam Hart, marks the directorial debut of David Leitch. He’s a veteran stunt co-ordinator whose resumé goes all the way back to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and includes a couple of the Bourne movies. He also directed action scenes of the 2014 Keanu Reeves’ movie, John Wick.
Leitch is really good at the fight stuff, though that’s about as far as it goes. The dialogue is wretched (“Berlin is a cruel mistress”), the plot a unfollowable pastiche of a John Le-Carré tale of double agents and official cover-ups. And soundtrack wincingly literal: Is someone escaping? Cue A Flock of Seagulls’ I Ran. An overheard conversation. 'Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry. An inter-spy make-out scene in a nightclub? Re-Flex’s The Politics of Dancing.
The story is framed around a debriefing session, reminiscent of Basic Instinct, in which the Blonde, Lorraine, must explain herself to her MI6 boss (Toby Jones) a CIA figure (John Goodman) and a hidden M16 chief (James Faulkner). She recounts how she was sent to retrieve a list of British agents, an “atomic bomb” of information if it falls into the hands of the enemy. As she slinks around Berlin, wearing a secret recording devicewhile meeting allies and dispatching assassins.
There’s a maniacally-grinning James McAvoy who sleazes it up as a shady British bureau chief who has gone “feral”. There’s alsosexy French agent (Sofia Boutella) who goes to bed with Lorraine, for some girl-on-girl under neon action. And There’s also Eddie Marsan as the former Stasi agent, who wants to defect and Til Schweiger in an incomprehensible role as a top-secret watchmaker.
The pay-off? First, there’s Theron’s no-mercy onscreen glare and her long, strong physique. Here’s an Oscar-winning actress (2004’s Monster, in a different kind of man-killing role) who can step into the shoes of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger.
Then there’s the other kind of screen impact. Atomic Blonde’s climax is an extended sequence near the two-thirds mark in the film in which Lorraine earns the map of bruises that cover her body. In one extended, uncut sequence, in which the camera bounces back and forth with flawless timing, Lorraine battles her way down an apartment building stairwell, severely depopulating East Germany as she dispatches a stream of goons, using fist, foot, furniture, and found objects. And we haven’t even go to the garrotting, the car chase, the drowning or the stabbing.
As a exercise in controlled brutality, Atomic Blonde is memorable, though neither serious nor especially fun. By the end, you may just want to go home and put a cold compress on your bruised eyeballs.
Atomic Blonde: Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman and Toby Jones. Atomic Blondecan be seen Cinemaplex, Yonge and Dundas, Cinemaplex Yonge-Eglinton, Scotiabank Theatre and Silvercity Yorkdale and the Varsity Cinemas.