Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman
Directed by David Leitch
Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad
Based on “The Coldest City” comic book by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart
Produced by Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A. J. Dix, Kelly McCormick, Eric Gitter, Peter Schwerin
Cinematography by Jonathan Sela
Edited by Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
Music by Tyler Bates
“Atomic Blonde” is a cool—ultra cool—stylish, classy, wintry-summer-mix, kick-behind blast of midsummer action-packed spy thriller movie fun and entertainment, an eighties-based Cold War spy film that out-Bournes all of the unneeded Bourne sequels; matches various elements of James Bond movies in its Cold War paranoia and cat-and-mouse agent-operative-double-agent spy games and Bond’s nod-nod-wink-wink-intended outrageousness and sly spy humor; and even recalls in its clandestine moodiness, atmosphere and suspense some of the better Le Carre-esque Cold War-based dramatic spy movies. That’s saying much, and praising much, but the fun, fast, funny, suspenseful, clever and overall retro cool spy ambiance of “Atomic Blonde” raises the movie above other recent spy-action movies that simply fell flat and tried—but didn’t quite succeed—at obtaining the continual levels of suspense, action, intrigue, deception, twist, turns and surprises that “Atomic Blonde” bombards the viewer with, much like the genre’s, and the movie’s, series of perfectly-timed and perfectly-placed roundhouse kicks, perfectly-thrown knives at the back, various sharp implements driven into various body parts, and physically and logistically impossible close-up, tightly-edited fights and tightly-edited car chases.
“Atomic Blonde” is all that it tries to be, which is many things, and that is an achievement to marvel. The movie is a classy spy movie, an often whizzing and whirling action-adventure movie, a period Cold War rumination on the bizarro—and generally stupid, it must be said—political, intelligence, sociological, cultural idiocies and machinations of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a general statement on the blatant stupidities and idiocies of communism, a major denunciation of the overall idiocies of Cold War-esque spy games in general, and, simply, just a very cool, classy, stylish movie that succeeds on the production, direction, writing and acting levels. It’s all there in “Atomic Blonde” and there’s room for fans of all of these areas to enjoy in this movie—whether you want to enjoy a smart, clever and intriguing spy movie that always keeps the viewer guessing and wondering about what’s going on; or whether you want to enjoy an action-adventure movie, a Cold War drama, a Cold War ‘80s retro movie, and even simply a good, solid suspense movie.
Director David Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, basing the script off of the comic book “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, also are smart enough to include one other notable element in the movie, also in a Bond-like manner: sly, sardonic humor. That’s an element that’s too-often missing from spy movies, even the better spy movies. “Sneakers” was a funny, reality-based spy movie, and there’s plenty more in that vein—including all 26 Bond films and the Bond spoof version of “Casino Royale”—but there’s also far too many dramatic spy films that lack much humor—humor that could even have been included in the most serious reality-based, Le Carre-esque spy thrillers. Even during the darkest, coldest hours of the Cold War—and there several decades worth of darkness and coldness, to the unfortunate, ridiculous detriment of everyone on the planet—a little humor must fall. Even the most dark, doomy and gloomy true-life Cold War literary, news and documentary accounts of moronic intelligence wheeling and dealing from the ‘50s to the ‘80s included some minor-plot stories that were so ridiculous, so unbelievable, one had to laugh, despite the overall tragedy of the Cold War.
Thus, “Atomic Blonde” succeeds at being an entertaining movie on so many varied levels, even non-fans of spy, intrigue, suspense, Cold War and action films can enjoy the film for its high-levels of style, class, atmosphere, ambiance and enjoyment.
“Atomic Blonde” tells the story of a sizzling, sexy, cool, always-stylish—in fashion, action, smarts and personality—spy named Lorraine Broughton, who is working for the United Kingdom’s spy agency M16 and who is dispatched to an always-nervy, continually-paranoid and moronically, maniacally stressed-out Berlin in 1989 to recover an important list of agents and double agents who are active in the field for the still-powerful, but near-crumbling and aging Soviet Union intelligence apparatus. Even though there are signs that the Soviet Union is headed for the historical junk yard and its ways of doing things are dying and the very symbolic communist bloc block of the Soviet Union-East Berlin-Berlin Wall is literally about to be torn apart and torn down, everyone on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War and the Wall want that list, which was stolen by a KGB agent, Yuri Bakhtin from a murdered M16 agent, James Gasciogne. Broughton is also tasked in her mission in Berlin with finding and assassinating a known double agent known as Satchel, who double-crossed Gasciogne and is working with the Soviets.
That basic story and plot may sound clichéd and familiar to anyone familiar with ten Cold War spy movies, and, yes, it is—however, it’s all in the telling, the script, the acting, the action and the mood and ambiance of “Atomic Blonde”—along with a slew of devious, deceptive, dark and wonderfully clever aforementioned spy game twists, turns and surprises–that elevate the movie above the normal and familiar. As Broughton carefully—very carefully—navigates her dangerous way among the many mazes and webs of deceit and deception that seemingly every living soul in Berlin possesses, whether they are a spy or not, she must dodge murderous KGB assassins, murderous arms dealers, the murderous and thoroughly corrupt East German police who were really just communist spies and thugs, incredibly and breathtakingly sexy and sultry French female agents, American CIA operatives, British M16 operatives, informants, shadowy operatives whose affiliations are never quite clear, and assorted other agents, assets and operatives. Nearly everyone’s motivations and backgrounds and statements are questionable—except for a very small band of trusted agents—and, as a British spy chief coldly—and clichedly—warns early in the movie—yet the cliché works here because it rings true for the rest of the movie: “Trust no one.”
That’s a strong warning to Broughton, who soon, and continually, learns that familiar statement’s inherent truth—trust is a loose, rare, always-uncertain and always-questionable commodity in Berlin during the Cold War in 1989. It’s unclear just who several operatives are working for, or whether they’re playing both sides against each other, or whether they are loyal, or whether they are Satchel themselves, or whether everyone is lying and covering up and deceiving just to live another day, and not die another day. That’s always the case in spy stories, of course, but when these continual questions of truth, trust, loyalty and cooperation among spies are so dark and complex and intriguing, that just makes for great spy games, a great spy story—and a great spy movie, especially with “Atomic Blonde.” These continual, suspenseful questions of intrigue and intelligence and of who is working for against whom make “Atomic Blonde” always fun, as the movie’s characters—and the movie’s viewers–play a continual guessing game about who is who, what is what, and why this agent does this, and essentially, just what will happen next. In “Atomic Blonde,” the script, stories, plots, subplots and characters all mix together to form just a continual labyrinth of mystery that keeps viewers interested, enthralled and entertained.
Charlize Theron dazzles as Broughton, and she seems to bring together into one characterization in “Blonde” what every fevered Charlize Theron fan has wanted—and fantasized about, let’s face it—for her in a movie: great beauty, sexiness, sultriness, intelligence, toughness, bad-@$$ness, athleticism, physicality, individuality, rock-solid confidence, hand-to-hand combat fighting ability, dexterity, an ability to get knocked down and then immediately get right back up, cleverness, coolness, very sly and underhanded humor—and even, yes, it must be noted, participation in an affair, tryst and sex scene with an incredibly beautiful, equally sexy French female agent, the wonderfully-named Delphine Lasalle, smokingly and torchingly played by an equally-dazzling Sofia Boutella. If that’s not enough for even the most casual spy movie fan, then, well, sorry for the cliché, but it’s time to get the ol’ blood pressure checked. The chemistry and scenes with Broughton and Lasalle—and between Theron and Boutella–are one of the many highlights of the movie, and, again, let’s face it, their sexual chemistry, making out and sex scenes just explode off the screen—not for any gratuitous or sexist or piggish reasons—but because it’s just simply done so classy, so adult, so maturely—and so sexy—it’s just simply sexual and sensual. And, of course, from a feminist and, yes, intellectual viewpoint, it’s refreshing, welcome and a wonderful relief from the macho, male-dominated spy world to not only see a strong female protagonist spy—but also to see a strong female protagonist spy have a torrid, hot, sexy affair with another strong female protagonist spy. It’s a bit of a revelation not for any juvenile or sexist reasons, but because it just simply doesn’t happen enough in spy films. And, dare it be said, there’s rarely a man-on-man torrid sexual affair in a mainstream spy film. Let that be the next revelation in the next super-cool, modern-day spy movie, if someone dares!
And Theron and Boutella are ably aided in “Blonde” by a superb supporting cast—every single actor seems to be having just a barrel full of fun playing it up as super-secret spies, agents, killers, assassins, thugs, arms dealers, KGB agents, British and American spies and assorted Cold War-era criminals and operatives. And director Leitch and screenwriter Johnstad are to be credited and praised for writing and confidently directing such a fun movie for the actors to have fun with—the direction and script are tight, fast, smooth, classy, stylish and smart throughout. And a particular standout among the cast is James McAvoy, wonderfully hooting it up and enjoying himself immensely—his enthusiasm also ignites the screen—as an always-questionable, somewhat-irritating, smirking, smiling, wheeling, dealing, deceiving and decepting spy David Percival. A continual question that permeates the movie—to its credit, as in any good spy movie—is just who Percival really is. Is he working for M16, for the Soviets, for the Germans, for the Americans, for some of them, for all of them, or for himself? Trying to figure out Percival’s intentions and motives is, again, one of the many fun guessing-game aspects of “Blonde.” And it’s equally enjoyable watching Broughton, a very cool, calculating, take-no-prisoners spy, tangle and interact and go up against Percival, who’s a bit of a rogueish, playboyish, dangerously-loose-operating operative. They are opposites working together and opposite each other in terms of their approaches to intelligence, information gathering and navigating Berlin’s intricate spy channels and passages. Similar to how enjoyable it is to watch the smoldering chemistry of Broughton and Lasalle, it’s equally enjoyable to watch Broughton and Percival deal with each other and their decidedly different methods of conducting spycraft. McAvoy is having a great time, and his enthusiasm is, again, just a hoot to watch.
Leitch and Johnstad decided to use a flashback framing device to bookend the various Berlin scenes—Broughton being interrogated in one of those clichéd—yes, clichéd—spycraft interrogation rooms with a mirror on one end that everyone in the room—and everyone watching the movie—knows has some shady, powerful spymaster watching from behind, usually accompanied with tape recorders, video recorders, shady spy goons in the back, against the wall, and plenty of dark, moody, shady lighting. This is seen, yes, in too many spy movies, and at first, it appears that this device, and these scenes, in which Broughton is being interviewed about her Berlin mission after the fact by an M16 official, Eric Gray, played coyly by Toby Jones, and a CIA official, Emmet Kurzfeld, played in his usual gruff, somewhat-annoying cloying manner by John Goodman, don’t quite fit in “Atomic Blonde.” However, that is ultimately not the case at all, and as the film progresses, it becomes crystal clear that the over-arching, Berlin-set spy story and plot are directly, intricately—and most cleverly—connected to the interrogation scenes. The bookend device works in “Blonde”—much like it did in a very similar manner exactly thirty years ago with the similarly-excellent, similarly-exciting and similarly-paranoid Cold War spy classic “No Way Out,” with Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Sean Young and Will Patton all playing similar nervy, paranoid, stressed-out spy warriors. Nothing is ever too new in the arts, alas, as 1987’s classic “No Way Out”—which was simply one of the best Cold War spy movies of the ‘80s—was a remake of 1948’s “The Big Clock.”
“Atomic Blonde” also succeeds in creating an entirely believable late 1980s, Cold War atmosphere and aura of paranoia, fear, stress, deception and chess-game-style West-versus-East political dealmaking and double-dealmaking, and concurrent governmental and diplomatic cat-and-mouse political, social, cultural and spy games—taking the viewer back to another time and place that wasn’t really so long ago, but, suddenly, with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall and communism in general in terms of its pathetic attempted grasps at world, or even continental, domination, feels, yes, like so long ago. The entire atmosphere of that time and place—Berlin in 1989—is expertly captured in very specific detail in the film’s wonderful, accurate—and moody atmosphere-creating– production design, set design, fashion, music, props and basic settings. The Wall itself is a character in the film, with its checkpoints, its barbed wire, its imposing presence, its spies always roaming around, and its frenzied, trigger-happy soldiers. Elseshere in “Atomic Blonde,” spies and informants and operatives are everywhere—always, of course, lurking in the shadows. Politicians are paranoid, nervy, smoking and drinking and worried about, well, everything—always, of course, plotting and scheming and planning in darkended offices. Diplomats, government officials and office bureaucrats are also paranoid, nervy, smoking and drinking and worried about everything—and they’re also always plotting and scheming. Even residents and shopkeepers and people on the street seem to be walking just a little too nervously, seemingly always looking over their backs and around corners. Even if those images are not prominent in the movie—that’s the feeling you get in this atmosphere. Everyone was so busy plotting and scheming and playing stupid spy games during the Cold War, it’s a wonder anything productive got done on the planet Earth, and it’s a wonder that the planet and the human species didn’t end up extinct in one abrupt explosion of nuclear annihilation.
Also in “Blonde,” the fashion, the period details, the props and wardrobe and the settings—dark offices, safe havens, clubs, meeting rooms, back alleys, streets—cry out communist Berlin during the Cold War in the 1980s.
And, again, to the film’s credit, “Blonde” is populated with several Top 40 lists’ worth of wonderfully-chosen, entirely-appropriate, dead-on rock and pop hits taken directly from the late 1980s and 1989, including, but not limited to: “Personal Jesus” from Depeche Mode; “99 Luftballons” from Nina (if this was not in “Atomic Blonde,” someone would have screwed up in the planning process); “Blue Monday” from New Order; “Fight the Power” from Public Enemy; “I Ran (So Far Away)” from A Flock of Seagulls—and, really, just how representative of the 1980s has this one song become, appropriately so—it’s just a great song and a great song to represent that era; “Under Pressure” from David Bowie and Queen; “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”—used to great affect in the movie, even though its from another ‘80s movie; “The Killing Moon” from Echo and the Bunnymen; “London Calling” from the Clash, even though it’s a late-‘70s-style punk anthem, it works here; and, of course, “Der Commissar,” and, just like “99 Luftballons,” if this song was not in “Atomic Blonde,” someone should have been reprimanded.
These classic—and great—1980s songs work expertly, efficiently and smartly—and not, to the film’s credit, gratuitously—throughout “Atomic Blonde,” lending even more late-1980s period detail, mood, ambiance and credibility. “Blonde’s” use of these songs simply represents one of the better overall use of period rock and pop songs in a period movie in a while. The songs blend perfectly with the story, the setting—even the action sequences—to again drive home the time and place of 1989 Cold War Berlin.
And, finally, everyone is talking about the action, fight and stunt scenes in “Atomic Blonde,” and everyone should be talking about them—the action, fight and stunt work in “Blonde” is continually thrilling, enthralling, in-your-face physical, visceral, vicious, gut-wrenching, inventive and just plain exciting. Drawing from decades of Bond and the Bourne films, “Blonde’s” fight scenes enjoyably utilize various things sitting around rooms to great physical—and, at times, even humorous—affect, and there’s the now-requisite close-up, tightly-edited, frenzied-edited, whirlwind hand-to-hand close-up combat-style fighting, all whizzes and whirls and smacks and punches and twisted arms, legs, necks and heads. This is all done quite well and expertly continuously in “Blonde”—Leitch was a longtime noted stuntman and stunt coordinator, and his direction shows this background well.
However, there is one caveat, and this has nothing to do so much with “Blonde” as with filmmakers’ tendency to steal and steal and use and use and over-use and over-use until a particular filmic convention becomes tired and clichéd: After “Blonde,” and its likely lame followers and copiers, it’s possibly time to put to bed the over-used modern-day style of up-close hand-to-hand fighting with those aforementioned whirls and whizzes and punches and slaps and twisted heads and arms and pencil-and-pen-stabbings and anything-sharp-stabbings. This particular fighting style was already clichéd by the third Bourne film, was testing people’s patience—but it worked—with the “Taken” movies, and is now very close to be overdone and exhausted and horribly clichéd with its use in “Blonde,” even though it works to an original affect in this particular movie. It’s just time to put the “Bourne/Taken/Blonde” style of close-up fighting to rest, along with its 1990s/2000s/2teens cliche brethren of found-footage movies, and the cliché of using of various computer, laptop and cellphone technology as plot devices in movies. All three of these over-done, clichéd movie devices need to be simply buried in a time capsule and put to rest for several years.
That said, however, please note that the action, fighting and stunt scenes in “Blonde” are not overdone, they do work, and they are yet another level of enjoyment to be found in this enjoyable movie. Leitch and Johnstad are smart enough, again, with the action scenes in “Blonde” to even inject those needed doses of humor—much like the Bond filmmakers do—to offset the attendant violence. That mix of violence and humor works well in “Atomic Blonde.” The fight scenes are indeed inventive and enjoyable.
So as July winds down and the dog days of August approach in 2017, definitely head out to the movie theaters this summer and enjoy the spy games, intrigue, action and adventure of “Atomic Blonde,” and take a welcome, pleasant and nostalgic trip back to those paranoid, nervy, scary, intriguing Cold War days of the late 1980s. And, then, suddenly, as you leave the movie theater—you may starkly, shockingly, suddenly and scarily realize that, in today’s political, social, cultural and diplomatic climate of 2017, some things in this world, alas and aghast, have not really changed that much. The cliché in this case is true—the more things change, the more they stay the same. That, folks, is indeed the primary lesson of “Atomic Blonde,” and it’s a frightening lesson well worth learning.