RUNNIMG TIME: 115 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1989, a week before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, MI6 agent James Gascoigne is shot and killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin, who steals the List, a piece of microfilm concealed in a wristwatch that contains the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. Ten days later, Lorraine Broughton, a top-level spy for MI6, is brought in to be interrogated by MI6 executive Eric Gray and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld about her mission to Berlin. The day after Gasciogne’s death, she was dispatched to Berlin to recover the List and uncover Satchel, a double agent who has sold intelligence to the Soviets for years and who betrayed Gasciogne. Her helper is supposed to be the slightly mad agent David Percival….
Not knowing much about its source material Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde turned out to be something of a pleasant surprise for this critic who, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the very tacky title which doesn’t really give an idea of the film, expected another super or at least borderline-super heroine flick with a sideline in feminism despite the fact that this was the solo directorial debut of David Leitch, one of the two helmers of John Wick. In fact what we have here is a genuine old school-style Cold War spy thriller where nobody can be trusted, a new revelation is always just around the corner, and good and evil are blurred, topped up with just a bit of John Wick meets Bourne action mayhem. No doubt there will be some who feel that the gunplay, fighting and car chasing gets in the way of the John LeCarre/Ken Deighton-type stuff, and others who will be disappointed in the thrills being quite well spread out and much of the plot taken forward in dialogue. But I think that Leitch, aided by his crew and a quite brilliant [but then isn’t she always?] Charlize Theron who with this and Mad Max: Fury Road is a genuine female action star who can also [sorry Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale and the rest] act bloody well, pulled what could have been a terribly uneven mess into quite a smooth and satisfying piece of entertainment.
The tale is introduced in quite an odd way. After we’ve seen agent James Gascoigne fleeing for his life and eventually knocked over by a car several times driven by KGB man Yuri Bakhtin who retrieves a secret list called – the List – we flash forward several days to Theron’s Agent Lorraine Broughton, first seen bruised and battered bathing in ice and indulging in what seems to be her favourite activity as relaxation – drinking vodka- being grilled about what seems to have been a failed mission to Berlin. Then, we go back again to a few days before when Lorraine sets off to get the List and find the identity of Soviet double agent Satchel. It’s a bit of an awkward opening, but successive flash-forwards to the interrogation actually begin to create alot of tension rather than breaking it, because the two interviewers – high up MI6 and KGB men Eric Gray and Emmett Kurzfeld – clearly don’t believe her and sometimes even offer their own view of what happened – though it’s rather amusing to see Toby Jones, who was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, playing such an exceedingly similar part again seated at a table in a soundproof briefing room. What also works well though are the tidbits we see on the news about what’s going on Berlin: rather than being distracting, they provide an interesting backdrop to the main story. In fact one of things this movie does so well is to give a real sense of what it was must have been like being in the city during its last few days as a town divided by a wall, a lawless place in utter chaos, yet also a city on the verge of something wonderful.
As soon as she arrives in Berlin, Lorraine is ambushed by KGB agents working for arms dealer and KGB associate Aleksander Bremovych, but is able to escape thanks to her main contact, agent David Percival, showing up to help. Percival, played by James McAvoy who seems to be channeling his quite astonishing turn in Filth, may be an agent himself, but seems happiest drinking, whoring and making a little money on the side by selling contraband goods. The two create some nice tension between them but involvement, even of just the sexual kind, doesn’t seem to be on the cards because there’s also French agent Delphine Lasalle who’s obviously far more her [and mine] type than Percival. Apparently the character was a male in the comic, so its easy to see this as a cheap attempt to cash in on the current popularity of both female and lesbian-themed stories, and the sex scene is disappointingly cut short considering that this is an ‘R’ rated film with a hell of a lot of violence. The character doesn’t end up mattering much in the story either, though it’s interesting to try to work out what Lorraine’s real thoughts on the matter are. She could just be using Delphine. And it’s nice to see The Mummy‘s Sofia Boutella in something good. Meanwhile there’s a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass who matters a great deal. He’s the one who stole the List and has memorised it, so Percival offers to escort Spyglass and his family across the border to West Germany. However, Percival also meets with Bremovych to arrange the transfer of the List to him!
If you’re not used to this kind of “who’s working for who” kind of plotting, then not being able to trust a soul in this film may become confusing, but I rather enjoyed being asked to think for a change, and actually veterans of the more complicated kind of spy story may guess some of the supposed revelations before they occur. The action higlight is a ten minute series of several brawls that begin on a staircase, goes through an apartment and end up in a car, shot with no obvious cuts [apparently they are there, but I certainly didn’t spot them first time round] and the camera keeping steady so we can really appreciate what’s taking place on screen. The fighting in this film, while not taking place that often, is vicious, bloody and messy, with participants reaching for whatever is at hand [look out for what Lorraine does with an extension cord] as often as they perform some martial arts [Theron trained at the same time as Keanu Reeves did for John Wick 2 and they even sparred together]. And it’s given a real edge by Lorraine not being an invincible Bourne or Salt-like character who never seems to get hurt or make a mistake, but instead being somebody who often cocks things up and who can get badly injured. When she’s smashed in the face or thrown to the ground, you almost wince. There’s also a couple of decent car smashes which look like they have just a touch of CGI [though why did they need any?].
While some flashy scene changes are a little annoying, Leitch has crafted a visually strong film here, appropriately grey, muted locales alternating with red, blue and sometimes green neon-lit rooms and nightclubs that almost make it sometimes look like John Wick 3. One chase sequence ends up in a cinema showing the Soviet film Stalker, though I wondered why considering that Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterly sci-fi parable was actually made in 1979. Elsewhere there’s a real good sense of time and place, though I was most disappointed to learn that filming took place in Budapest, while the almost nonstop parade of songs, some from 1989 but some from before, gets a bit too much, as if the filmmakers were afraid that we’d forget when the film was taking place. At least there are some rather left-field choices [Ministry?!] along with the rather too familiar ones [I mean how many times do we need to hear The Clash’s London Calling] and a couple of German covers. And the songs are usually well chosen so they back up or even energise what’s happening onscreen.
Mysterious yet vulnerable, tough yet sexy, clever yet fallible; Lorraine is just one of the best heroines of the year. Theron never seems to let you in so you never really know what Lorraine’s thinking, yet you’ll still with her every step of the way. I wouldn’t object to seeing her return, something that’s certainly possible considering the film’s pretty good [for an ‘R’ rated film today that isn’t a comedy or a horror] box office. Atomic Blonde makes a praiseworthy attempt to be both intelligent and exciting, so I think that some of its more bothersome issues which I haven’t yet got around to mentioning but which do sadly lower its overall grade for me – quite a few scenes which seem to be cut short before they’ve actually finished, a final twist which is perhaps one twist too far and makes little sense, rather too many close-ups of Theron’s face [as nice as it is] – can almost be forgiven. With Leitch at the helm, it actually makes me look forward to Deadpool 2, and if you read what I thought of that movie that’s a miracle.