starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones
screenplay Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnson and illustrated by Sam Hart
directed by David Leitch
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Essentially No Way Out with less hot sex but better action sequences, David Leitch's Atomic Blonde is a lot of truly dreary Cold War spy intrigue interrupted periodically, but not often enough, by the good stuff. It proposes the antiquated notion that collusion with the Russians is treason in having heroic MI6 agent Lorraine (Charlize Theron--Mr. F after all, all this time) take ice baths and try to figure out who mysterious mole "Satchel" is in the last days of East Berlin. Her contact there is skeezy Percival (James McAvoy) whose handlers fear has gone a bit "feral" in the field. We're introduced to him trading Jim Beam and blue jeans for information and waking up with two girls (two!) to pick up Lorraine at the airport. There's also a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) who offers up a Sapphic love interest for Lorraine and ends up the way that lovers end up in spy movies. Leitch, an uncredited co-director on John Wick, brings the same style of kinetic, close-in martial arts and, eventually, gunplay of that film, but missteps badly by, among other things, making this about more than avenging a dead dog. Without an emotional charge--and there isn't enough of one generated by the loss of two of Lorraine's lovers--there's no real sense of emotion or energy in the action scenes. They're super cool, don't get me wrong (at least they are until Leitch decides at the very end to overuse slow motion), but they lack motivation and investment. But that's the least of Atomic Blonde's problems.
Atomic Blonde is essentially a fetish-wear exploitation/S&M flick with Theron in a series of fabulous outfits and amazing heels and thigh-high boots. Leitch luxuriates in every stitch and every inch. In the first major bit of action she uses a truly outstanding red stiletto as a weapon. You bet it is. She has great sunglasses, a collection of wigs, slinky dresses of every variety, and the trenchcoats that are all the rage this year, I hear. Theron looks fantastic, and the film takes pains to note it. Before taking on a half dozen of East Berlin's finest, she mutters that if she'd have known the police were coming, she would've worn something different. This could be a statement about the nature of a woman's power in a man's world; or it could be what Wonder Woman would have been had a man directed it.
It's possible not to objectify Theron's appearance (see: Mad Max: Fury Road--and Monster, of course), but I'm not sure that Atomic Blonde is trying very hard. Most of the point of the film seems to be to look as cool and as comic-book-like as possible, given that it's adapted from Antony Johnston's and Sam Hart's graphic novel The Coldest City. The graphic novel, it should be noted, is in black-and-white and its heroine is distinctly brunette. Why the change? You tell me. Its soundtrack is a who's who of '80s waver chic, though I did feel the absence of The Cure and The Smiths, who were ubiquitous at the time. Whatever. Much has been made about how 'on the nose' the song choices are, like "Voices Carry" for a surveillance scene. If action films are essentially musicals, I guess I don't care about this, either. In fact, I only mention the music since there's a joke about sampling in there and the whole thing boils down to Lorraine doing a Baby Driver with some tapes. What I did think about was the sommelier scene from John Wick: Chapter 2, in which what the hero wears is of utmost importance because it's his armour, a tool of his trade. In Atomic Blonde, it's only a tool of the trade if the trade is being an expensive hooker.
It bears mentioning that the film is told in flashback as Lorraine is debriefed by her M16 superior (Toby Jones) and his CIA colleague (John Goodman), whom Lorraine calls a "cocksucker" almost immediately. Crucially, she lacks true agency, because her bosses are men--a series of men. She's doing a job. What is it they're asking her to do, exactly? It's a Joss Whedon fantasy of empowerment: complete control of a dangerous woman. It's a Jess Franco movie with a budget and a fight choreographer. Challenged to repeat what she said, she declines. It's framed as a joke, but the joke is that she's powerless and ultimately afraid to call this man who is her handler a cocksucker. Her interrogators are men, her fight antagonists are without exception men, and she's revealed to genuinely care for Delphine, in conflict with the film's "cool" themes of not caring for anyone and not trusting anyone. For someone as stony as Lorraine, she trusts many people and loves one or two people, too. This already makes her hard to respect as a hero, because for all her bluster, she's bad at her job.
It's delicate ground, too, to kill off the lesbian lover. Make the argument if you want that women are always used as motivational chattel in movies like this, but add in the LGBT angle and it becomes something simultaneously field-levelling and potentially abhorrent. For what it's worth, Delphine is killed in her lingerie, reaching for something in her bed, while Lorraine is trying to get to her side. It's horror-movie stuff. Italian horror movie stuff. Leitch spends a lot of time looking at the bruising and cuts on Lorraine's naked body, which is, again, either levelling the playing field or underscoring the idea that these images in this context are not equivalent and can never be equivalent because of the cultural payload they carry--particularly as the damage is exclusively meted out to her as a result of betrayals by, and direct violence from, men under the direction of men. This character would be awesome in a distaff remake of Die Hard, because there she'd be acting with her own agency. At one point, Lorraine promises a charge that she's never lost a package. And then she loses it. Leitch lingers on her helplessness and resignation. That she suffers because of men is political; that she survives because of the agency of men and through their direction is political as well. And a problem. It's an easy problem to solve, really; they do it in Bound. Give her real power over her situation. Allow her to make decisions that are entirely her own. As it is, she's neither hero nor anti-hero nor a hero--she's just a survivor. I liked this better when David Fincher did it honestly with his rape revenge/exploitation film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Atomic Blonde, in other words, is a grenade of half-cooked ideas and politics wrapped in this veneer of "awesome" by intricately-choreographed action sequences and fairly realistic depictions of exhaustion and violence. I'm not sure it's all that different from rape-revenge films, or Jess Franco's oeuvre. Don't get me wrong, I like rape-revenge and exploitation films. They're likewise awesome. I've just never seen one packaged quite like this. It's like The Neon Demon if The Neon Demon had amazing action sequences. Or Ms. 45 meets The Raid. Can it be about these issues with a woman this physically dominating? Can it avoid these issues with a woman this physically compromised? Splashed in jukebox colours, filmed with flash but wisdom that allows for the action to be comprehensible at all times (even if the ethos isn't), Atomic Blonde suffers because it doesn't have a strong narrative justification for what it does and spends way too much time looking at female bodies in various states of undress, arousal, and injury. I think this picture is about how women take all sorts of abuse and keep on ticking. Women are badass. I get it. Men are the worst. I agree. Women are also super-hot--just look at them! Now I'm confused. Though the film's been described as plot-heavy and hard to follow, I'd offer that it's not hard to follow at all and its plot is something we've seen a dozen of times before. What's hard to process is how this woman who's being objectified is presented as both completely self-sufficient and unable to get out of Berlin without some twink with a secret panel in his trunk, and the ability to smuggle her guns whenever she wants them, and to get her passports, and to offer a team of bellhops to cover an information-drop gone wrong. She can, however, slowly tape an audio wire up her front from thigh to cleavage, you know, two or three times. I think Atomic Blonde is proposing that it's okay to ogle her because she can break your arm.
Theron is game but clearly going through the paces of a character with no real reason to do what she does except that she's following orders. She smokes cigarettes on screen as well as anyone ever has, cuts a striking figure in various stunning fashion spreads come to life, punches in giant, cinematic, windmilling arcs, and manages to come across as an adept stuntwoman with the help of Leitch and his ace team. That she seems detached feeds into this meta-textual reading of the film that as Theron the actress goes, so Lorraine goes as the character is forced into the same situation: Limited information, limited motivation, the instruction to look cool, and an intimidating amount of fraught ground to cover to get there. I point again to Wonder Woman, which also has a heroine at its centre and which, curiously, is never at any moment prurient despite lines designed specifically to allow for it. Or to The Beguiled, which presents feminine sexuality as the equal of male sexuality, reserving its leering for the guy unconscious on the table. Theron even did this role successfully once already in Karyn Kusama's studio-bowdlerized Aeon Flux. Atomic Blonde gives us a lot to think about and, unfortunately, enough lulls in which to do just that. What it's best at, finally, is underscoring how good John Wick is at avoiding the same expository pitfalls and speedbumps in creating its world. Maybe it's easier without all the payload that accompanies a bisexual woman in the same situation; that's the conversation we should be having--along with the fact that you shouldn't really bring these things up without having a much better plan in place before you start.