Directed by David Leitch (2017)
by Sandy DeVito
I should probably preface this review by admitting I knew I was going to love Atomic Blonde before I actually saw it; once you get to a certain point, after you've watched so many films, you start to get a good idea of what you're into, what kind of cast you look for, the telltale hints of stylistic choices you prefer. My success rate calling my like or dislike of a film is probably around 85% at this point. David Leitch, who directed the film, was one half of the former stuntman duo that conceived the original John Wick, a film that exceeded my expectations (and, it seems, pretty much everyone else's) in every conceivable way. Atomic Blonde is one part Wick, one part Bond, one part 80's action genre film, one part, I dunno, love letter to nostalgia? Love letter to Charlize Theron's presence on Earth? Love letter to neon and New Wave? All of the above. And love it I did.
Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is an MI-6 spy, sent to Berlin after another agent is murdered trying to protect sensitive, classified information. Since the trailer already does too much in giving away plot information, I'll stay vague on the contextually finer points. When it comes to spy stuff, the devil's in the details. It comes as no surprise that Theron embodies Lorraine so effortlessly that the line where Charlize the actress begins and Lorraine the spy ends blurred entirely for me by the end of the film. Charlize's zodiac sign is Leo (humour me); Leo people don't need to pretend to be ice cool. They just are. Lorraine had to be both instantly intimidating and vulnerable from the get-go for this film to work - the first time we meet her, she's bruised and battered, submerged in a bathtub of ice. Through subtle facial cues, we not only immediately feel Lorraine's physical pain, but her emotionally battered state. She pours herself a glass (one of many throughout the film) of Stoli vodka, tossing ice in it with an exhausted hand, cubes scattering outside the rim. Lorraine has seen some shit. Got it.
I'm calling all the inevitable forthcoming reviews of this film that use the phrase "style over substance" as a criticism of it - I hate this particular criticism, as it seems to fundamentally misunderstand the medium it's referencing in the first place. Film is about the visual, first and foremost - t is not reality, it is a distorted mirror image of ourselves, some of the bits and pieces deeply familiar, other bits strange and shadowed. In the adept genre creation Leitch has concocted, the style is the substance; just as Lorraine has built intricate walls around herself and her profession cruxes on its mystery, so does the film build us an elaborate labyrinth of neon lights, maze-like rooms, the simmering, erupting streets, both contemporary and ancient, of 1989 Berlin, and the kinetic, angry energy of violence. I love that espionage films, this one most definitely included, have their own poetic pacing, with dialogue that sounds almost real but not quite. Turn the genre expectation of a dashing man on its side with a woman embodying traits considered by many to be masculine - physical expertise, callousness, cold indifference, stoicism - and this film becomes a rare beast, brimming with a drenched virility that reclaims the abstraction of gender. But this isn't done in a way that's cloying, on the contrary, Theron is an actor of such rare talent that her performance never feels forced or contrived, but utterly earnest.
What a fucking cast we have here. James McAvoy is a worthy opponent to Theron particularly, an unhinged Mad Hatter stepping in on her orderly way of exacting business. I have a personal affinity for McAvoy, so I won't say I didn't enjoy his constant presence so much as I recognized when he didn't necessarily need to be there - despite Theron being the protagonist, McAvoy gets top billing with her on much of the promotional material, which I'm sure he himself would agree is not fair, and would not happen if their positions were reversed. Other pitch-perfect casting includes Toby Jones, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Bill Skarsgård and Til Schweiger (that's right, HUGO STIGLITZ himself) in a cameo as the Watchmaker. I loved everyone in this movie - there was not a single miscast actor among the lot of them. There's an infectious sort of enthusiasm that hangs like a patina around this film as you watch - as if you can just tell everyone was happy to be there. Charlize has talked at length already about her grueling, vigorous training and insistence on doing her own stunts, and the pay off shows in spades. You simply cannot look away from her. In the second act, the fight scenes had me utterly riveted. My audience oohed and aahed and a man behind me literally screamed at one point. That's how fucking good those scenes are.
It's also been reported that Theron personally pushed for the very sexy love scene between her and Boutella in the film, which lessens any sort of lesbian-fantasy vibe I would have been wary of without that knowledge. In the past, scenes like that have usually slid into skeevy territory, but as a somewhat bisexual woman myself (and as the more solidly bisexual friend who I saw this film with agreed wholeheartedly), I was very pleased with the depiction of a woman whose varied sexuality gets a representation on screen that genuinely feels erotic rather than pornographic. I do have some issuew with Delphine (Boutella)'s final scene, only because it seems to teeter into some convention, but any scenes she and Theron share are mesmerizing.
Not only way this an intense visual feast, it's an ecstatic auditory experience as well, the soundtrack chock full of the seductive tones of New Wave, a musical genre I've long held in high regard on a personal level. It includes everything from Bowie's fiery Cat People to Depeche Mode's aching Behind the Wheel to Siouxsie's ritualistic Cities in Dust, as well as gorgeous new covers of Blue Monday and 99 Luftballons among others. I'm really hoping they'll be releasing a special edition vinyl, as I am all-around in love with the entire musical affair here. There are subtle, ingenious pop culture nods throughout the film as well, two standouts being Tarkovsky's Stalker playing in a theater Lorraine uses to divert Russian operatives who are chasing her, and "everything you want is on the other side of fear," a famous quote by Socratic philosophist George Addair, emblazoned in neon on the wall of a crowded club. I can't wait to rewatch this film to pick up on all the subtle visual cues I missed, as well as the clues leading up to the final scene which is brilliant and so much fun (and which I did not call at all despite it being obvious in retrospect, which made me very happy).
I really want people to go see this film, because I really want Lorraine to get the film trilogy she deserves. The journey is not perfect, but Blonde's slight flaws are easily overlooked in light of Theron's extraordinarily committed performance. By the end, Lorraine may have earned her tea with the queen, but I think it's easy to see who the real queen is here. Bow down and worship at her neon altar.