The second trailer for Atomic Blonde debuted today, giving a longer look at Charlize Theron as a spy, killing her way through Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Directed by David Leitch, a veteran stunt co-ordinator and director who helped make John Wick one of the most memorable action movies of this decade, it looks like it could be the birth of a new cinematic icon. Leitch talked us through the trailer frame by bone-crunching frame.
The Atomic Blonde herself
Based on The Coldest City, a graphic novel by Anthony Johnston, Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989 in Berlin. The Berlin wall is about to come down and spies are running amok. After the death of an agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to the city to find out what the hell is going on. “Lorraine Broughton works for MI6,” says Leitch. “She is not your typical Cold War spy. What we set out to do is to turn the spy thriller on its head and make something unconventional. She’s dealing with an existential crisis. She’s navigating this world of lies and figuring out who to trust. Throughout the movie there are twists and turns as she tries to survive this storm of lies…How far will she go to survive? How much will she bend the truth?”
The trailer opens with Broughton being interviewed, rather unhappily, by a pair of CIA suits, one played by John Goodman. They’re trying to get to the heart of what happened on Broughton’s mission, which mostly takes place over one night. “This debrief is used as a narrative tool that’s intercut throughout the movie,” says Leitch. “It’s dissecting the events that happened in Berlin that night. We’re seeing the story as it unfolds, but also seeing the events afterwards in the debrief, where we get more information, some clarity on things and maybe a little disinformation too”. Anyone worried John Goodman’s appearance might be a one-scene-wonder, he’ll show up a whole lot. “He’s a CIA agent in Berlin who was there when shit went down…If you have John Goodman in your movie you want to use him as much as possible”.
As the uncredited co-director of John Wick and with stunt experience on films from 300 to Wolverine and The Mechanic, Leith knows how to put an action sequence together. From just a few seconds in we see Charlize Theron beating down bad guys without breaking sweat. “Charlize was training for three months, for three-to-four hours, four days a week. She did a lot with our stunt team at 87Eleven [the same stunt team that got Keanu Reeves ready for the John Wick movies]. She was as good as anyone we’ve ever brought into that facility. We expanded the action sequences tremendously based on what she was able to do. Her dance background was helpful on that front, but mainly her work ethic… She wanted to deliver something that was provocative and worthy of an Academy Award-winner”
Fighting in cars with boys
Leitch wanted to stretch the action as far as he could, aiming for sequences that would push him and his star to their limits. Case in point, a sequence that involves Lorraine getting into a fist-and-gun fight in a speeding car. “When I originally got the script I immediately started to envision more action [than was in there],” he says. “You want things to be different and you want your protagonist to have as many problems as possible to solve in a sequence. So it’s, ‘OK, she’s in a car but the guy has a gun and also there’s somebody following them. Then the choreography can take on new dimensions, rather than just being face-to-face, mano-a-mano. That really lets you be creative.”
Hose the boss
Leitch mentions Jackie Chan, an action star who loves finding every possible way to use a single prop in a fight (see his ladder scene in First Strike. His take on that can be seen in the trailer, in an early sequence where Broughton uses a hose to obliterate baddies and escape a building. “The hose fight is probably the Jackie Chan moment. The action arcs along with the story of the movie. At the beginning of the movie we’re having fun with the action. [At that point] it’s hard for me not to be inspired by people like Jackie, who’s one of the best choreographers who ever lived… Then it spirals and gets darker and darker. [The sequences] get more grounded and more character-focused until she reaches her pinnacle and it all comes to a head”
The name’s Percival. David Percival.
The sidekick role goes to James McAvoy as a spy with the very uncool name of David Percival. If his name sounds a bit like a British civil servant, his character transcends it. “[David] has been in Berlin for over ten years and he’s been living the hardcore Berlin lifestyle,” says Leitch. “He’s not a typical James Bond kind of spy. He’s more of a strung-out, rock ‘n’ roll version of that. James really brought that character to life. He’s such an incredible actor.” Percival will have his own action style, which contrasts with Lorraine’s. “He has a few action sequences and I’d say they’re a little smaller and more compact, but when he does them he delivers a big punch.”
City of lights
Throughout the trailer, you get images soaked in neon. Throbbing clubs and glowing bars. Leitch wanted to get away from any clichés of the Cold War spy movie and give the film the vigour of the youthful, club-loving Berlin that was growing during the 80s. “When I got the script it was a very Cold War thriller [as we know them],” he says. “Very ‘noir’ and ‘trenchcoat and fedora’. I thought, ‘how can I make this punk rock?’ and I thought about the Berlin I knew. I’d done six movies there either as a stunt coordinator or second-unit director…This city is not that. It’s full of colour and music and life. If you were trying to be undercover in this world you wouldn’t be wearing a trenchcoat… If you’re trying to get to the underworld of Berlin it’s not suits and ties; it’s rock and roll. There’s a music video vibe to the whole movie, but more contemporary music videos than 80s ones.” It’s shot by Jonathan Sela, who Leitch worked with on John Wick. Leitch asked him to take the mood of 80s music videos but interpret them with modern techniques.
It will probably not escape your notice that there are several shots of Theron in her pants, as well as pressing Sofia Boutella up against a wall for a big snog. You could argue objectification. Leitch argues equality. “There’s a lot of cool shots of our lead character and it’s unapologetic of her sexuality,” he says. “We’re treating her just like you’d treat a male spy. It’s sexy. I’m not embarrassed to say we wanted it to be sexy and provocative.”
The new girl
Sofia Boutella appears toward the end of the trailer, primarily in that kiss, but she’s not there as just a conquest, a Broughton Girl, if you will. Boutella plays an inexperienced spy in contrast to Broughton’s toughened old pro. “When you hire Sofia, people usually think she’s going to do action but I brought her on to play this naïve spy who has just gotten into the game. She represents the human side of the spy. She’s there just trying to figure things out. She does an incredible job of being naïve and vulnerable, but then at moments she’s strong and determined. She’s probably more known for her action but she came in and delivered this incredibly nuanced performance”
The thumping tones of New Order’s Blue Monday play over the soundtrack. The setting and time period gave Leitch plenty of opportunity to riffle through his 80s record collection. “There’s a lot of pop, a lot New Wave in there. You’ll hear Depeche Mode, David Bowie, ‘Til Tuesday. There are fifteen tracks from the 1980s and every single one is iconic.”
The woman in black
One shot shows us the Atomic Blonde is not always a blonde. She appears briefly with black hair, slipping into what looks like a hotel room and shooting the crap out of it. “Well I’ll leave it at this: Spies have to go undercover. That’s all you’re getting from me on that! There are a lot of looks in the film. I’m not giving you any more! There are a lot of twists in the film and I want to make sure every one of them lands. Spies go undercover. They take on different personas. And she’s the best.”
Atomic Blond is in UK cinemas from 11 August. Watch the trailer here.