Atomic Blonde (2017)

Charlize Theron has found career second wind as a genre film star, one who can step nimbly between villainy and heroism by projecting an aura of offended, scarcely constrained ferocity. It’s not such a surprising twist for an actress who won an Oscar throwing off her honey-blonde love-object early roles to play a serial killer, but the looming threat of being outmoded in an industry that’s always ready to toss women over 35 out on their ear, has loaned Theron a new conviction, a total don’t-give-a-fuck-itude that's dazzling. But it's also frustrating, because the vehicles to contain it and utilise it are lacking. Theron’s stature since she played Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), modulated in the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road (2014) and The Fate of the Furious (2017), succeeds in dwarfing even her most muscular co-stars with a movie star quality that seems at once powerfully au courant but also perversely old-fashioned. She’s becoming mainstream cinema’s sole heir to the likes of Davis and Crawford in commanding the screen with outsized grande-dame personality, that knowing edge that establishes the screen as both her sovereign space but also inviting us in like collaborators. An early scene of Atomic Blonde offers an ode to Theron’s new stature, glimpsing her writhing in a bathtub full of ice cubes, before sitting up to smoke a listless cigarette, her body covered in deep grey bruises like abstract tattoos, Penthouse meets pieta. The film around this scene sets out to enthrone Theron upon a role of pure iconography, leaning into cynical winds as it casts the mind back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the inchoate gibber of the Cold War’s death rattle, but spurning the era’s triumphalism for a general prediction that certain things never change, particularly when national securities depend on people least like ordinary citizens to safeguard them. 

Atomic Blonde plays as attempt to mate a distaff James Bond riff with one of John Le Carre’s paeans to moral murk and collections of shifty bastards double-crossing each-other in the no-man’s-land between empires, and with dashes of Leone western played as post-modern, neon-drenched music video. The film opens to the strains of New Order’s deathless “Blue Monday” as a British agent, James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) gets shot by a Russian opposite, Bremovych (Roland Møller), over possession of a list of western agents pilfered from deep within the Stasi’s files by East German security officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who’s hoping to use the information to buy himself passage to the west. The story unfolds in flashback as English superspy Lorraine Broughton (Theron) recounts the tale of her subsequent Berlin adventure, wearing the punishment she’s taken on her body, fending off the searching question of her suspicious MI6 boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones), shadowy spymaster Chief 'C' (James Faulkner) looking on from behind the two-way mirror, and CIA rep Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). The object of their efforts is to identify the treacherous double agent in their midst. Broughton tells of how she was sent into Berlin to retrieve the file, making uneasy liaison with Gascoigne’s shifty colleague, David Percival (James McAvoy), who likes to party hard and has been enriching himself flogging western goods to the East Berlin black market, and naïve French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a bohemian dabbling in espionage. Percival wanted to obtain the list and sell it to fund a stylish homecoming, Broughton wanted to do her job and earn some payback for her former lover Gascoigne in the process. Percival successfully screwed over Bremovych to obtain the list, but Broughton soon learnt that Spyglass had the entire list committed to memory, which meant if she could smuggle him over the Wall she might still complete her mission. But is that really what she wanted? 

Theoretically, this film should be riotously entertaining. The pieces in the jigsaw are irresistible, from spiking the soundtrack with peerlessly collected ‘80s electropop that makes you want to dash out, snort some coke and get funky on a glowing dance floor, to casting Theron as a statuesque, bisexual ass-kicker who slices and dices her way through enemies, matching wits with McAvoy at his most smarmy and debauched, and leaping enthusiastically into bed with Lasalle for a sex scene that’s easily the most impassioned moment of the movie - perhaps even the cinematic year. Atomic Blonde wants, beneath the glaze of frosted, taciturn bruiser chic, to be called a stylish throwback with such desperation many of its frames could be cut out and used as billboard ads for Vodka Stoli, the drink Broughton downs with delicious abandon. But there’s a difference between actual style and mere prettiness, and Atomic Blonde doesn’t know what it is. Style in cinema is about the way images strike against each-other in the act of unspooling them, one reason many visual artists who turn to the medium fail to come to grips with it. Director David Leitch, a former stunt coordinator, makes his standalone directing debut here after helping make John Wick (2014), and proves he was probably the eye responsible for that film’s plethora of shots with fill lighting drenched in tones of blue and red, as this film likewise comes in a constant swathe of carefully colour-coordinated grit. Leitch attempts revival of the high-style affectations of many movies from the era it’s set in (early Ridley Scott, high-water DePalma, Mann, Alan Parker, Beinix, Walter Hill, etc), recreating them within the context of a movie that hopes to be an instant artefact. Like John Wick, Atomic Blonde is adapted from a graphic novel, in this case “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, lashed into a screenplay form by Kurt Johnstad. 

And like John Wick, it’s a series of carefully potted tropes and flourishes that have no cinematic flow. Atomic Blonde is instead gorgonized into petrified immobility, a series of curated art installations rather than actually exciting action set-pieces and character interactions. Johnstad’s script is numbingly flat, constantly trying to delight in all these characters crossing and double-crossing and saying smart-mouthed things, but actual wit and cleverness are entirely absent. A deeper problem is that the attempt to marry brute-force action imperatives with a more serious brand of spy drama ends in divorce. The script makes gestures towards portraying a collective of reckless individuals nominally acting on the behalf of governments and declared loyalties but actually working for themselves. But the incompetent structuring constantly takes too long to introduce characters and then properly define them, for instance, the connection between Lasalle and Percival, which is only evinced in the last twenty minutes. All I’m left with are endless impressions of McAvoy’s cocky smirk, Boutella’s sadly sensual wince, Marsan’s expert timidity, and Theron’s ice-cold stare. The midsection devolves into a series of shots sporting Theron looking statuesque and stoic in various states of undress, going out on the town, and meeting some character in a dive with great mood lighting – wash, rinse, repeat, with the odd kick-‘em-in-the-balls fight now and then. The film is utterly hamstrung by a storyline that somehow manages to be both obvious and incoherent, and expertly staged and yet curiously uninvolving action sequences. 

Leith gives us a now almost compulsory set-piece in this sort of thing: the lengthy, single-shot fight scene, as Broughton protects Spyglass from assorted Stasi hoods, a battle that proceeds up and down stairwells and in private apartments, and concludes with the duo being shunted into a canal in their getaway car. And yet nothing about this directorial flim-flam is remotely thrilling. There’s no potency as melodrama, in large part because the film never offers anyone to root for. The dupes are too readily delineated, the protagonist too feebly motivated. Marsan does make some impression as Spyglass, whose family he wants to get out of East Berlin. So does Boutella, who caught eyes playing the silent, steel-footed assassin in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Here she's interestingly cast as a more passive and poignant part, for Lasalle combines the the usually bifurcated roles of main squeeze and victim from the Bond films. Her dusky-eyed soul has definite power, a quality squandered in this ill-focused tale. There’s some bollocks about Broughton proving to be a double agent or even a triple agent with Goodman turning up occasionally to drawl commentary, but frankly I’d lost interest long before any of this stuff was resolved. The real cheat here is that the better film at its heart, one that offers much more time to Broughton and Lasalle’s tragic romance and which knows what its heroine stands for, can be made out amidst the clutter, a film that would give Theron and Boutella the vehicle they deserve. “Your eyes change colour when you tell the truth,” Lasalle tells Broughton, a line that successfully encapsulates a quality that defines the classic spy thriller, one blending bleak romanticism and sharp paranoia, aghast at the voids that exist between people. Would that Atomic Blonde knew the value of what it briefly holds in its grasp. 

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