Atomic Blonde is a film adapted from a comic book, in this case The Coldest City. There are quite a few elevator pitches that I’ve read for this, of which the most succinct is probably “Jane Bond” but, in fairness, a more accurate pitch might be “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with all the slow bits replaced with boobs, heels and fight scenes.”
In case your history isn’t up to it, the film is set in 1989, mostly in Berlin, at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Stasi (the East German Secret Police) has a list of all the field agents in communist Europe and a Stasi agent wants to defect, bringing the list with him. He hands the list over but his contact gets killed, the list disappears and everyone is looking for it so Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, the Atomic Blonde of the title) is sent to sort out what’s going on.
Now, this may sound crazy and totally implausible however the British Secret Service at the time was thought to be riddled with double agents (and certainly had been, look up Kim Philby, Donald Mclean, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess who are from an earlier generation but indicative of the problem), the Stasi were notorious for writing everything down and with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the whole of East Germany imminent Stasi officers were looking to defect and get protection for their crimes by bringing useful information with them. I’m pretty sure even the general events shown here didn’t happen but it’s not impossible.
So, on to the film itself. The “Jane Bond” elevator pitch is sort of deserved. However, unlike James Bond, if you’re expecting a lot of high-tech gadgetry and snide asides, you’re in the wrong place I’m afraid. The violence is also rather different to any Bond movie, but more on that later.
If you watch something that might be considered a serious cold war spy movie, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy or more appropriately given the setting The Spy Who Came in from the Cold perhaps, all the gritty spycraft and painstaking work is thrown out of the window in favour of a pulsing, period appropriate sound-track and fight sequences, more fight sequences, the odd encounter in a bar in a variety of outfits from classy to fetishistic, Charlize Theron in a plethora of high-heeled boots and stilettos, a quick bit of lesbian sex and more fight sequences.
However, just like in Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy this is a film in which loyalties are unclear throughout, even Broughton’s - unlike Smiley’s. There isn’t a lot of story here but the lies and trying to work out who has betrayed who and why provides just enough framework that there is a structure that makes sense and kept my brain engaged and provided a framework for the fight scenes.
Those fight scenes - a lot has been said about them, how well Charlize Theron learns and performs the fight stunts, the long fight scene that was done in a single shot and so on. The fight scenes are brutal, impossibly brutal at times as all the protagonists continue fighting after multiple stab wounds and the like, but in the heat of the moment I really didn’t think that. I’m not usually someone that sits there and laps up fight scenes for the sake of it, although I don’t hate them, but I enjoyed these (Charlize Theron beating up on multiple men who were bigger than her didn’t hurt there) and they looked both good and plausible except for the fact they just didn’t go down for so long - although that added to the tension and run of each scene.
The film is also shot in an achingly neo-industrial style. Some of that is what I vaguely remember as the Berlin aesthetic of the time (or perhaps it’s how it’s been reinterpreted 25 years later), with neon lights, concrete blocks and the like. At times it works well but at others it is just hard on the eyes and looks fairly brutal on the actors as well. Having said that, while there are rooms where I’d have rather poked my eyes out than stayed in, it did fit the tone for my memories of stylish Berlin of that era, at least as we saw it from afar.
If you like action movies and spy movies, I think you should enjoy this. If both Mad Max: Fury Road and any spy film with shifting loyalties are in your repertoire I think there’s enough here to enjoy. And if you’re old enough to remember the late 80’s music scene from the first time round (although there are some covers too, like the Kaledia cover of 99 Luftballon that was amazing) you might get an extra thrill. If you’re a fan of high-heeled boots you’ll get, if you’ll forgive the pun, an extra lift too. Charlize Theron and James McAvoy won’t get Oscar nods for this but I found them both thoroughly watchable in their different ways.
Bechdel test: Yes. Broughton and Lasalle have some conversations as well as some artistically shot sex and while sometimes they’re about men, sometimes they’re about each other and their aspirations and the like.
Russo test: I’m going to say yes. You can argue about whether they’re actually lesbian or bi or they’re just doing their duty, particularly for Broughton, but fundamentally the film shows two women having sex and then in bed together on another occasion. They’re both pretty important to the story and they’re certainly not “the token lesbian.”
Quick Spoiler Warning
Lasalle, Broughton’s love interest is killed. In this movie, it’s more part of the Anyone Can Die trope than the Bury Your Gays trope. If Lasalle had been played by a male character (and there’s no particular reason the character had to be female) the story would have developed in a way that they would have been killed and still made complete sense. But if you’re hyper-protective of your lesbian characters, especially cute French-Algerian ones, be careful.
The author does not allow comments to this entry