Review by C.J. Bunce
At the beginning of Daniel Craig’s first foray as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, Craig redefined Bond as viewers were taken back to his first kill, the event that earned Bond his 00 status. The scene instantly set the standard for the modern fight-or-die scene. This is the exact level of hand-to-hand combat viewers will be treated to in the new summer release, Atomic Blonde. Charlize Theron terrifically portrays what everyone always wanted to see: a woman in the role of James Bond. Sure, she has a different name, but Theron is believable just the same as a spy being interrogated by heads of MI6 at the end of a mission. As she tells her story, in every way she convinces us that she could go head-to-head with, and maybe even knock out Craig’s tough and bloody version of the Brit master spy. Only don’t think this is a typical Bond movie. It isn’t. It’s layered, more like The Usual Suspects or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, only better–less cerebral and more fun. And Theron chalks up another badass cinematic heroine, resulting in a film that is easily worth the admission price.
Based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City from Oni Press, Atomic Blonde follows the original, focusing on several nations’ spies trying to recover a secret list of agents being smuggled out of East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a no-nonsense top-level spy, with attitude and style, battered and bruised from some recent epic encounter when we meet her at the beginning of the movie. She’s being interrogated and debriefed by both British and American agency heads, with John Goodman (Argo, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Big Lebowski, Monsters, Inc.) as the American and Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, Snow White and the Huntsman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Doctor Who) as the Brit. What unfolds is a smartly constructed Cold War thriller, more complicated than Ian Fleming but not as complicated as John le Carré, but enough so that it may lose viewers a few times along the way. Ultimately Broughton finds herself trying to smuggle out of the country a German officer who memorized the secret spy list, played by Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, The Illusionist, V for Vendetta, The World’s End). The rewards and payoffs come not only at the resolution but in several scenes along the way, as Theron punches, kicks, hammers, fires, splatters, mows down, stabs, punctures… everything but bites her way through dozens of bad guys trying to kill her. The violence is extreme, but it all works–it’s great fun much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or Chuck Norris’s blockbuster rampages in the 1980s–and it’s not gratuitous like a Quentin Tarantino bloodbath (blown-off heads aside).
The Atomic Blonde of the title comes from Broughton’s short, 1980s style hair, and that length allows us to see that much of the time Theron is actually doing her own punching, and taking plenty of punches, from all these men. She’s quicker, and she prepares herself for many of her punches and bruises by soaking in a tub of water filled with ice cubes–a concept that helps her more than once throughout the film. The story and action really kicks in as Broughton begins to smuggle Marsan’s character out of the country and as the steps are laid out in a subplot involving her mission to assassinate Satchel, a double agent known for selling secrets to the Soviets. It’s exciting like the real-life story told in Ben Affleck’s hit film Argo, where a spy smuggled a group of would-be hostages out of Iran in 1980. Atomic Blonde has less subtlety and nuance than Argo, but Atomic Blonde similarly displays an early, retro style of storytelling compelling enough to keep viewers interested. Does it feel like a comic book adaptation? Sure. Like History of Violence and Road to Perdition. In fact Broughton could be Hit Girl from Kick-Ass all grown up.
Misfires include the super-saturation of scene after scene with 1980s pop music, cranked up far too loud and too often by stuntman-turned director David Leitsch (Deadpool 2, John Wick) which seems to reflect his lack of confidence in the scene. It’s too bad–the scenes often work, and it may be Leitsch’s immaturity as a director (this was his first feature film director role) that is to blame. Like the remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, cinematographer Jonathan Sela (The Omen, A Good Day to Die Hard, John Wick) tends to linger a little long on close-ups. The film style includes framing scenes like not-quite slow motion portraits, with tilted comic book angles (reflecting the source material), but often the artistry drags down the flow of the story. The value to these scenes is getting to watch Theron look quite cool, playing a badass who doesn’t hesitate, apologize, or, thank goodness, sob or cry for men to come to her aid. Like Bond, she knows how to drive, how to survive, and what to wear and drink.
Almost as compelling as Theron are performances by James McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, State of Play) as David Percival, Broughton’s contact in Berlin, and Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond, The Mummy, Kingsman: The Secret Service) as Delphine Lasalle, a young French agent Broughton develops a relationship with, exactly as James Bond would (and Boutella makes an ideal “Bond girl”). Boutella doesn’t get to display her Theron-esque spy fighting skills as she did in Kingsman: The Secret Service, but her dramatic range gets better with each new movie she is featured in. Having a stuntman in the director’s chair was a novel and smart move–the stunts and choreography provide multiple fight scene sequences in the same surprising way as Steve McQueen’s Bullitt gave us a one-of-a-kind car chase (and one car chase toward the end of Atomic Blonde belongs on everyone’s top 10 list). If you count Roddy Piper and Keith David’s brawl in John Carpenter’s They Live among the best, you’ll want to order your tickets now for the next available screening of Atomic Blonde, not for just the scene that has been widely shared on social media, but for a half dozen equally impressive scenes peppered throughout the movie. Another perk? The best scenes are not in the trailers.
Atomic Blonde is now playing in theaters everywhere.