People don’t usually move very fast in Cold War thrillers. Mostly, the only time anyone runs is right before they get shot in the back. Most of the “action” happens in a film cabinet, down a back alley or with a silencer. The classic Cold War tale — which is to say a John le Carre one — is characterized by a deathly stillness: grave faces meeting under gray clouds.
This is not quite so in “Atomic Blonde,” a post-war thriller set in the final moments of the Cold War (1989 Berlin) starring Charlize Theron as the MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton. She’s not your traditional European operator. Let’s just say that if Theron’s Broughton turned up in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the old boys would’ve soiled their trench coats.
Broughton is black and blue at the opening of David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” and the first thought is that Theron must be licking her wounds from playing Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” If that film didn’t prove that Theron is today’s most badass action star, “Atomic Blonde” — while not anywhere near the kinetic explosion of “Fury Road” — will certainly make it official.
The bruises turn out to be from the story she soon relates. Broughton spends the movie in a testy interrogation with her MI6 boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA chief (John Goodman). The mission she recounts is her dispatching to West Berlin to assist the station chief there, David Percival (a zany James McAvoy), in recovering a missing list with the names of every British asset — something the Russians are rather keen to obtain.
So far, that might sound somewhat le Carre-like. But it’s not minutes after being picked up from the airport that Lorraine finds herself jabbing an assailant with her heel, pushing him out of a moving car, and forcing the driver into flipping the car over.
Leitch is a veteran stuntman who co-directed the action hit “John Wick,” in which Keanu Reeves wrecks endless vengeance on those who killed his dog. The backdrop is more lavish in “Atomic Blonde,” but the hand-to-hand combat is no less primary. Whereas another spy thriller might gradually go deeper into its complex networks of allegiances, “Atomic Blonde,” based on Antony Johnston’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” stays on the surface, keeps the body count increasing and the ’80s score blaring.
And, man, does it blare. The soundtrack, especially early in the film, is bludgeoningly prominent. The combination of violence with ’80s pop hits is, to Leitch, an inexhaustible cleverness. So if you want to see someone fatally beaten with a skateboard to the tune of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” or a stabbing set to ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” you have finally found your film.
“Atomic Blonde” is largely a vacant, hyper-stylistic romp that trades on the thick Cold War atmosphere of far better films (not to mention “The Americans”). It’s all dagger, no cloak. But it has two things going for it.
One is Leitch’s facility with an action scene. The film, technically speaking, gets off to a rough start when a body is sent flying by a ramming car in the kind of blatantly unrealistic CGI fling that ruins movies. But he later goes for a much more bravura scene in a seemingly uncut sequence in which Broughton takes on a number of assailants on a stairwell in a fight that eventually spills out into the streets.
It’s easy to see that Leitch is aiming for a more acrobatic version of the famous corridor scene from Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” And there’s no doubt it will have some fans cheering for its audacious seamlessness. But the virtuosity on display is spoiled by its own showoff-y self-awareness. The sequence, a hermetic burst of filmmaking finesse, has nothing to do with the rest of film; it’s just a calling card for a filmmakers’ highlight reel.
But the other asset of “Atomic Blonde” is altogether more formidable. Theron doesn’t so much as dominate “Atomic Blonde” as steadily subjugate every other soul in the film — and those in the audience — into her complete command. Like her more timid le Carre forebearers, there’s no pleasure in her victories. There’s only ruthless survival in a grim game.
She is most definitely atomic, but I’d try to do better than calling her a blonde.
“Atomic Blonde,” a Focus Features release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.” Running time: 114 minutes. Two stars out of four.
LOS ANGELES: According to Charlize Theron at Monday night’s premiere at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, “Atomic Blonde” might not be the last we see of her character, Lorraine Broughton.
“We’re actively talking about where we could go with a sequel or a prequel,” she mused on the red carpet. “The great thing about Lorraine is that she is such an enigma. We really didn’t saddle her with anything so that leaves us a lot of ways to go and continue her story.”
Theron said she was particularly satisfied about how the movie, which debuted at SXSW in March, matched her initial vision in 2013 when development began on a movie version of Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City.”
“I think it’s very rare where you develop something and you end up with what you planned four years ago,” she added. “I’m very proud of it.”
Theron also admitted that she’s pleased by how “Atomic Blonde” has been identified as a symbol for powerful women in action movies, much like Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman.” “It shows that girls can take ownership in this space a little more,” she added.
When she introduced the movie, Theron evoked a big laugh by thanking her trio of dentists — identified as Doctors Gusmante, Gordon and Tose — who helped her deal with the two teeth she cracked during filming. “I don’t know if they’re here but I want to thank them,” she said. (Agencies)
Theron concluded by saying, “I also want to give a quick shout out to the original atomic blonde — my mom, who came out to look after my two kids so I could go and kick a– every single day.”
Director David Leitch, who is making his feature film directing debut after a career as a stunt coordinator, said that the feel of 1989 in Berlin was crucial.
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“It’s sort of a punk rock spy thriller,” he said. “The fall of the Berlin Wall is a metaphor for the existential crisis in lives of these spies, which is falling apart. We wanted the action scenes to be brutal.”
For screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, the movie encapsulates part of his own experience from Berlin as a teenager.
“My dad was a pilot for Pan Am based out of Berlin so I spent a year in the 1980s after high school living in his flat and going over to the East,” he recalled. “I was kind of an airline brat.”
Eddie Marsan, who plays Theron’s ally Spyglass in the film, recalled still being dazzled by the stunts.
“I was right in the middle of all the fighting,” he noted. “It was very satisfying.”
Focus Features launches “Atomic Blonde” on July 28.
By Jake Coyle