7 out of 10
Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton
Directed by David Leitch
Atomic Blonde Review:
Here’s a thorny question. Does equality of opportunity for roles between men and women mean there are equal number of roles in an equal number of genres written for women as men which express a woman’s point of view and do away with conventions like victimization? Or does it mean making the characters so interchangeable that it doesn’t matter who plays them – the outcome will be the same barring some surface dissimilarities? [Which begs the question which characteristics are interchangeable and who decides that, but that is a question for another time]. Whether it means to or not (the answer is almost certainly ‘not’), David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde puts its finger right in the middle of that riddle with Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton.
An experienced case officer with MI-6 during the height of the Cold War, Broughton is handed her toughest assignment yet when she is sent to West Berlin on the eve of the Berlin Wall coming down. A Stasi officer (Marsan), with a list of all of the West’s undercover operatives, wants to defect and it’s up to Broughton to bring him over safely. And just to make things more complicated, he also has the name of a British double agent who will stop at nothing to keep his or her identity from being uncovered by MI-6 or the KGB. Not knowing who to trust or who knows about her mission, and armed only with her wits, her fists and her stellar wardrobe, Lorraine dives headfirst into the paranoia and violence of the end of the Cold War.
Leitch and his team have created a stylish and impeccably-designed film, but It is very much style over substance on the sliding scale of spy movies. On the one hand, it wants to be on the realistic side with ’80s-era technology, realistic and brutal fight sequences and complex webs of lies and treachery. But it also is extremely aware of its set design, wardrobe and music, all of which create an intentional music video feel. These two forces fight with each other for the entire film, making it never quite as clear as it could be but also never quite as shallow as it could be. And the biggest victim of those opposing drives (ironically in a role very much about not being a victim) is Lorraine herself.
The requirements of the spy genre and the focus on surface elements means that she is intentionally closed off for the entire film. Waltzing behind enemy lines searching for a double agent, she must at all times keep her thoughts to herself, with any hint as to what the real her thinks and feels about everything around her only coming out during the extended fight scenes. The rest of the time she stands and watches the world but doesn’t really interact with it, becoming a blank slate for the audience to paint whatever they want to onto her. At the same time, she is the soul of the film with everyone else flitting about her. McAvoy steals all of the scenes he has (helped by the increasingly-ridiculous wardrobe he has been given), but he comes and goes as needed to prod the plot along; the same can be said for Boutella as sympathetic French spy or really everyone else. There are a couple of moments of introspection, mostly during the interrogation which intersperses the main story, but they are fleeting and only provide glimpses into her inner life. Mainly Lorraine is here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and she’s all out of bubblegum.
But what action sequences they are! Using the ’80s mix-tape that is the soundtrack as a guide, Leitch and his stunt team have put together an impressive array of brutal set pieces, the centerpiece being an extended one-take sequence through a building full of KGB killers as Lorraine tries to sneak Spyglass out of East Berlin. Outnumbered and outgunned, Lorraine must use her wits and whatever she can get her hands on, from garden hoses to toaster ovens, to batter her way through her opponents who refuse to go down even with bullet wounds in the stomach.
That said, it can be argued that, for all it’s empowerment, Lorraine is a man’s idea of a powerful woman. She is the modern male action star, replaced by Charlize Theron. She smokes, she drinks, she fights, she seduces attractive women. It’s impressive, but also still exploitative. That might as well be Atomic Blonde’s catch phrase, but it’s also not a deal breaker. Stylish, a little too long and occasionally a little too self-important, Atomic Blonde offers up a heady mix of modern action and ’80s throwback which, if it doesn’t amount to much, is awfully nice to look at.