Perhaps we should be worried, geo-politically speaking, by the resurgence of Cold War themes and tropes. Are filmmakers sensing the growing political tension, or just tapping a nifty, paranoid aesthetic? Atomic Blonde thankfully leans to the latter — that it’s about style not substance. Cool is prioritised over cunning as Charlize Theron’s secret agent cuts a swathe through Cold War Germany.
You’ll struggle to take your eyes off Charlize Theron.
Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 agent sent to Berlin just before the Wall falls, where the murder of a fellow agent and a lost list of spies threatens to extend hostilities. Broughton must find the murderer and recover the list, with the help of MI6 station chief David Percival (James McAvoy).
From the off, Broughton’s at a disadvantage. The terrain is unfamiliar, and the KGB are waiting for her before the plane even lands. That may be her own fault: in spike heels and rock- chic clothing she’s the least convincing lawyer since Dr Gonzo in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Her contact, Percival, is charmingly unreliable and operating his own agenda. And Berlin’s tangle of national rivalries further complicates things, especially with a double agent on the loose and third and fourth parties also searching for the list (a MacGuffin shared with Skyfall and Mission: Impossible).
It’s best not to study the plot too closely — start pulling threads and almost everyone’s motivation falls apart. And Broughton doesn’t invite empathy. Eyes hidden behind a succession of great sunglasses, she’s explicitly painted as an ice queen, regularly dousing herself in medicinal ice baths, her cigarettes a rare sign of warmth. Yet Lorraine is not a John Wick-alike unstoppable force or a Bond-ian pillar of the establishment, instead skewing closer to Indiana Jones — desperately battling bigger rivals.
As you’d expect from the co-director of John Wick, the stunts are breathtaking, with one brutal fight shot in long, hand-held takes that roam down stairs, through an apartment and into a car chase. And while it’s not a first to see a woman battered about to this extent on screen, it is unusual. Most of Lorraine’s opponents are male, and none hold back. It would be deeply disturbing were it almost anyone but Theron; she projects such formidable badassitude that it does not for a moment read like victimisation. Broughton uses whatever is to hand, and leverages her enemies’ own momentum against them, so you believe she could hold her own.
This all feels like a Bond ambition tour for director David Leitch. As such, it’s a convincing calling card. But this is edgier and more brutal than any Bond film. It’s more fun than Eon’s recent output, too — music choices leavening the violent threat and high stakes. Most of all, you’ll struggle to take your eyes off Theron as she earns a place beside Bourne, Hunt and the rest.