Review: Atomic Blonde

Theron commands a frenetically visceral spy thriller where violence has real weight. Stylish, sexy and slippery.

As with the recent leak of Prime Minister Turnbull’s infamously tetchy conversation with President Trump, so much of the dialogue that shapes geopolitics is a clandestine, messy and outright nasty affair carried out, for the most part, behind closed doors that rarely open until long after the fact.

Stuntman turned director David Leitch has fun with this fact from the outset in his frenetically visceral and ridiculously stylish adaptation of Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, penned by Act of Valor and 300 scribe Kurt Johnstad. Renamed Atomic Blonde in a nod to its end-of-Cold War-setting in 1989 Berlin, while the wall may be about to fall, East-West relations are far from fully thawed. A spray of neon-graffitied text alerts us that this story isn’t about Reagan and Gorbachev, though it sort of is. Or at least it’s about their unseen minions who do what the shadiest elements of their respective government apparatuses deem needs be done.

Charlize Theron, further honing the action chops accrued in Mad Max: Fury Road, is essentially Jane Bond as British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, the platinum blonde spy with a killer wardrobe to match her razor sharp instincts. When a fellow spook in possession of a top-secret list of similarly undercover colleagues on all sides of the divide is assassinated by a Russian criminal and the information compromised, she’s sent in to retrieve it and, if possible, figure out who’s behind the brazen attack that could collapse the newfound peace.

That means teaming up with fur-coated and hard-partying Berlin station chief David Percival, played with slippery ambiguity by Scottish actor James McAvoy. But much like The X-Files, Lorraine trusts no one, with every player in the most of their own long game. Indeed, the Brits don’t entirely trust her, with a framing mechanism that sees Lorraine investigated by her direct report (Toby Jones) and, much to her indignant chagrin, John Goodman’s interfering CIA agent Emmett.

Unlike so many violent spy thrillers in the vein of Bond or the Bourne movies, Leitch brings the full weight of his impressive stunt experience to bear here. Giving everything she has physically, Theron’s Lorraine feels it. A lot. That narrative bookend also sees her badly bruised and bloody body bathed in a tub chock full of ice, tipping some into her straight vodka tumbler. There’s also a truly spectacular, extended hand-to-hand combat scene late in the game as she attempts to extricate Eddie Marsan’s informer. The action almost grinds to a halt as both combatants are all but ruined by their vicious fight to the death. Indeed, the camera appears to be in on the stunt action, thrust into the hubbub and hurled down cameras with increasingly weary bodies. When the majority of Hollywood shows invincible superhumans, it’s commendable to see this stuff hurts.

Animal feral in its fights, Atomic Blonde is primal in most respects, including an intensely palpable, erotic sex scene between Lorraine and Sofia Boutella’s French photographer Delphine Lasalle’s Jane Bond girl. Darting through John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s neon noir-lit clubs pulsing to the sound of Bowie, Queen and Nena’s ‘99 Luftballons’, not-so-safe houses and steely mirror window interrogation rooms, Leitch’s fast-paced feature debut burns brightly, with Tyler Bates’ electro score igniting the fire.

With Daniel Craig swithering over whether to return, Theron makes a compelling argument for the series switching genders a la Doctor Who but, in truth, there’s just as much of a case for Lorraine’s do what it takes at all costs, coolly commanding cachet to return as is. Don’t stop the bomb. Learn to love it.

★★★★