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Atomic Blonde (2017) starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy
Atomic Blonde is an action-thriller set in Berlin in the lead-up to the fall of The Wall. It begins with a British agent named James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) being ambushed and killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) for the microfilm he possesses. This microfilm contains an incriminating list of people and - if dropped into the wrong hands - could set the thawing of relations between East and West back 50 years.
Fast-forward 10 days later and Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), the agent sent to investigate his murder, is being interrogated by her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and his American counterpart Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman) at an inquest to tie up various loose ends. The story is told in flashback from the meeting room as it follows Lorraine’s mission in the city.
After being duped into getting into a car with a pair of Soviet agents, she manages to discover the ploy and fight her way out. Two corpses and an overturned vehicle later, she is greeted by the agent she should have hooked up with, named David Percival (James McAvoy). Posing as a black market dealer, he was the man who was assigned to get hold of the microfilm from defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). What made the latter decide to handle such a valuable item onto one of his other colleagues?
Whose side is everyone on?
The plot thickens as two other parties come into Lorraine's midst: another KGB agent named Aleksander Bremovych (played by Roland Møller) and one working for the French named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Whoever they are, it is clear that Lorraine is in constant danger as she tries to both take Spyglass (who has memorised the contents of the microfilm) over to the West and stop Yuri from delivering it into enemy hands.
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A female John Wick?
Director David Leitch had previously performed some uncredited work on the original John Wick, and a lot of his experience from that film seems to have rubbed off here. The 2014 film was well-received for stripping the action genre of the over-edited style, overused CGI and timid PG-13/12A level violence that plagued such films during the previous decade, in favour of long takes, in-camera stunt work and graphic bloodshed. This one continues and develops the style, and thus will prove immensely satisfying to anyone who enjoyed John Wick and its sequel.
If anything, Atomic Blonde is closer to the convoluted storytelling and world-building of John Wick 2, but such an approach is more meaningful in this “end of the Cold War days” context. I’m not sure if all of the elaborate plot twists and character masquerades made sense (I was too distracted by everything else to pay much attention) but it just clicked as part of the overall experience.
While I could conceivably copy and paste a review of John Wick 2 here while throwing in a few references to the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and so on, there’s so much fun to be had in the details here that it would be missing the point.
It’s a visually fabulous experience, contrasting the overwhelmingly grey communist-era East Germany background details (cinemas showing Tarkovsky’s Stalker, streets lined with Ladas and Trabants), with the broad two-colour swathes of neon that brighten up the more opulent interiors. The way in which this time and place have been brought to life is undeniably stylised but beguilingly otherworldly. The soundtrack largely consists of both English and German language pop hits from the era, and these are incorporated into the action in an inspired manner.
However, it’s the all-important action that’s the highlight here. The sequences are mostly rather brief compared to the endless successions of shootings and beatdowns that took up much of John Wick 2’s runtime - although a lengthy face-off with some KGB agents in a stairwell, apartment and car near the end (seemingly captured in one jaw-dropping unbroken take) does come close. The body count is also comparatively low. It’s the viscerally sustained level of violence inflicted between human beings, shot in the manner of a hyperactive fly feverishly observing every blow, that makes it almost voyeuristically exciting. Each participant is injured again and again (often caused by all manner of implements, ranging from keys to corkscrews), and they noticeably flag under their increasing physical ailments.
Acting to match the action
The acting is definitely in the superior category by action film standards; Charlize Theron is as cool as the ice she is introduced bathing in during one dramatic overhead shot, but displays a convincing mixture of toughness and vulnerability during the fight sequences, and gets her opportunities later to display genuine emotional range. James McAvoy, meanwhile, more or less reprises the gleefully corrupt character that he played so well in Filth. The supporting cast is filled out well by the likes of Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones and Bill Skarsgård.
However, it’s Sofia Boutella who, as with Star Trek Beyond and The Mummy, almost effortlessly steals every scene she’s in with her foxy charisma and assertive presence. There has been considerable media attention focussed on the on-screen lesbian relationship between her character and Charlize’s. While it doesn’t take up too much screen time, it has enough believability and depth to feel like a natural part of the story rather than a gratuitous diversion. She has that ability to generate an engaging rapport with almost anyone (even the gruffly nerdy Simon Pegg in Star Trek Beyond, and the alpha male-arrogant Tom Cruise in The Mummy) that makes her worth watching even in the weakest of films (such as the latter of those two).
If you go in expecting an impeccably-crafted espionage drama on a par with John LeCarre’s work you will be disappointed (when Charlize’s Lorraine walks out of Berlin airport dressed like she’s stepping onto a catwalk at a Milan fashion show, she’s frankly drawing attention to herself in a manner no secret agent worth their salt would dream of doing). However, when taken as a stylishly violent piece of entertainment with an intriguing background, Atomic Blonde has her finger right on the button.
Runtime: 115 mins
Dir: David Leitch
Script: Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Where is it showing in Edinburgh and Glasgow?
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