M-I 6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in 1989 following a failed mission in Berlin by her superior Mr. Gray (Toby Jones) and a representative of the CIA (John Goodman). The mission was to retrieve microfilm stolen from a murdered agent that contains the names of all the Western agents embedded in the Soviet Union. It also has the name of a KGB double agent known only as Satchel. Broughton meets another M-I 6 agent named David Percival (James McAvoy) who has been in contact with the East German Secret Police agent that stole the microfilm who is known only as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). After the microfilm is stolen Spyglass tells Percival that he has committed all the names to memory and he wants to defect to the West along with his family in exchange for not giving the information to his bosses. Upon her arrival in Berlin, Broughton is attacked by several KGB agents who knew her name and what time she would be arriving. Unable to trust anyone, Broughton is certain she is being compromised at every turn. She notices a young woman following her around and later discovers she is a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella). Delphine is new to the espionage game and is in over her head. She and Broughton begin a physical relationship and Broughton believes she may be of some use in the case. Everywhere she turns Broughton is ambushed and pushed to her physical limits. Who is setting her up and trying to cause the mission to be a failure?
“Atomic Blonde” is based on a graphic novel released in 2012 called “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. The movie is a violent, dark and gritty look at the coming collapse of the Soviet Union and how the last vestiges of Cold War gamesmanship played out over the course of a few days in the divided city of Berlin. There are brutal fights and sneaky double crosses amongst secret agents that are all aware of each other and their professed allegiances yet no one can be believed at their word. It’s a world that would be impossible to navigate which is one of the reasons “Atomic Blonde” is so good: You never know who is on what side and if they’ll stay there.
The trailers for “Atomic Blonde” do a good job at selling the action and there is plenty more in the film. Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is a very bad woman when she’s forced to defend herself. Anything can be a weapon: A high heel shoe, a set of car keys, a corkscrew, and a garden hose, anything she can reach can be used against her attacker. The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed and believably executed. Many are shown as a single unedited shot while others have sneaky edits inserted by whipping the camera around or sending the combatants into a dark corridor. Director David Leitch has figured out how to shoot the action in a way that is both close enough to where you almost can feel the impact of the punch but not so close you have trouble seeing what’s going on. It’s one of my biggest complaints about many action films including all the “Bourne” movies. The camera in those films is almost between the combatants and is constantly moving. In “Atomic Blonde,” the action is shot at the perfect distance and is always centered in the frame.
The action is also handled in a realistic way to the character. By that, I mean that Broughton isn’t always going to beat up every man she faces. Poorly trained East German police don’t give her much trouble but experienced KGB and Stasi agents get in almost as many punches as she does. Broughton takes a great deal of punishment over the course of the film and her body, which we get a few chances to see, shows the signs. Broughton isn’t shown as the kind of hero that doesn’t face a real test until the very end like in most films of this type. In “Atomic Blonde” the hero faces challenges at nearly every turn making her all the more believable and human.
Charlize Theron plays Broughton with a cold, detached and world-weary stare. She’s seen it all and done it all so nothing will faze her. When she is told she has a different look in her eyes when she’s telling the truth she responds that she won’t do it again as it could get her killed. Broughton is the quintessential yet stereotypical working woman in that she feels like she must be better at her job than any man and she can’t take time for a personal relationship as she would be seen as weak and not serious about her profession. In a way “Atomic Blonde” is a statement about how working women are held to a different standard than men but that is only if you think about it too much.
“Atomic Blonde” is all about the action and the intrigue. No one can be trusted and everyone is a potential traitor. This keeps the tension going throughout the film. Who is Satchel and will Spyglass and his information make it out of East Berlin? I won’t spoil it by telling you the answer but I will tell you finding out is a great deal of fun.
“Atomic Blonde” is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. There are numerous bloody fights and shootings. Theron and Boutella have a sex scene where breasts and bottoms are shown. We also see Theron getting out of an ice cube bath and see her mostly naked. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.
As usual with a female-led action movie much is being made of having a woman performing stunts and engaging in brutal violence in a film. Any time a woman stars in a film genre that is usually the domain of men it generates articles and blogs about how this is a great step forward for women or cautionary stories wondering if it will make enough money to justify more action movies with female leads. The discussion is silly since the sex of the top-billed star is irrelevant: Is the movie any good? Does it deliver a good mix of action and story? Does it make sense? In the case of “Atomic Blonde” the answer to all three is “yes.” All the bloggers should look for more important stories to worry about.
“Atomic Blonde” gets five stars.
This week there’s a Stephen King adaptation and another female-led action thriller arriving at your local multiplex. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
The Dark Tower—
Listen to my new podcast The Fractured Frame available at wimz.com/podcasts, on iTunes and the Google Play Store.
Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.