A brutal, bloody adrenaline rush through an aesthetic wonderland, ‘Atomic Blonde’ is a masterpiece crafted in the hottest corners of the coldest city. Includes SPOILERS.
Atomic Blonde is gorgeous from the first second. The audience is thrust, immediately, into the hysteria of the end of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall’s final days. Reagan’s ‘Tear Down This Wall’ speech opens the film, before graffiti-esque titles tear us away from front line politics and throw us instead into the gritty realm of espionage. A bloodied British spy meets his end at the hands of a KGB agent as New Order’s Blue Monday blares out, the first fantastic 80s song in a retro soundtrack that rivals either of the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
This is the world we’re in. Hearts race, blood flows, the music’s loud and the morals are loose. While the world around the story is transfixed by political frenzy, the dark streets of Berlin are left to play by their own rules. The result is the birth of a brutal, heartless underworld.
Some critics have accused the film of being cold or emotionless and, in a way, they’re right. But they have also missed the point. I think the trend in cinema lately has been towards protagonists who are more traditionally heroic, characters rooted in kindness – even James Bond finished his latest outing by deciding he didn’t need to kill. While I have nothing against a hero who is ultimately, you know, heroic, Atomic Blonde is a breath of fresh air. It’s a step away from what we’re used to, into a story where the protagonist is not a hero, but yet another shady secret agent with just as dark a life as the killers surrounding her. For once we have a lead character who isn’t trying to escape their dark past – a story that has been told over and over again – but who is still living it, with no desire for redemption or anything other than survival and control over her own life. The characters of this world are cold, but not entirely emotionless – they’re just not driven by the feelings of love and righteousness we’re used to seeing. Instead, they’re full of rage, hate, lust, disgust and disillusionment. They are products of their environment and instead of trying to win our empathy through some great moral or emotional purity, they win our investment through their primal struggle for survival in a dying world.
Our protagonist, Charlize Theron’s elite MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, is the perfect embodiment of that cold-hearted primal force. The mission she is given is to retrieve a microfilm file called the List, which contains details of all active agents undercover in the Soviet Union, including the identity of a traitor code-named Satchel, who MI6 want dead. Gradually though, we learn Lorraine is out on her own mission, one to ensure her own survival. She’s cold, calculated and fearsome. She trusts nobody, treating her Berlin contact – James McAvoy’s David Percival, MI6’s Berlin station chief – with suspicion from the moment they (eventually) meet and misleading her MI6 superiors throughout. She plays everything close to the chest, gives away nothing of her true intentions and manages to keep even the audience in the dark until the very end, even after the film’s central ‘twist’ has been revealed (how much of a twist it was is debatable, but the further reveal in the closing minutes is a real shocker). Most of all though, Lorraine is ruthless.
The film excels in its bloody, relentless fight sequences. Theron reportedly took so well to her combat training that director David Leitch adapted the shooting to let her do more and to include longer takes of her in action. This comes to a head in the fight scene I’m sure everybody who has seen the film will be talking about. Leitch makes the film’s climactic staircase battle look as though it has been filmed in a single 8-minute shot. In reality, there are several concealed cuts, though a single continuous take of the entire sequence was filmed as a starting point. The effect, however, is mind-blowing. Sure, we’ve seen these ‘oners’ before, but never like this. When we are presented this gruelling fight without any cuts, we feel what Lorraine is having to endure, the total lack of respite and endless onslaught through which she has to persevere. I’ve already called the film brutal, but this is where we feel the toll of that brutality and see it in its harshest form. Visually, the scene is a gut-punching thrill ride, while thematically it is the climactic physicalisation of everything this story has been about. Here we see in a very literal, very immediate sense the relentless fight for survival, full of blood, pain and heartlessness. Lorraine putting a bullet in a KGB agent’s head while he begs her not to shoot is the perfect summary of who she is.
This heart-pounding use of the single shot technique is far from being the film’s only visual achievement. It revels in the glorious aesthetics offered up by Cold War Berlin. The stark grey tones of a literally divided city, the brash colours of youth and rebellion, and the neon beauty of the night. Scenes in night clubs, hotel rooms and bars stole the show for me, painting the characters in the bright electric colours of Berlin, a city that may have been controlled by the superpowers but that belonged to its people. Above all else, Leitch has succeeded in bringing that city to life. The spirit of that city is captured in the film’s most striking yet simple line of dialogue, which comes at the end of a powerful monologue from McAvoy’s Percival, delivered straight to camera as he laments the amoral pointlessness of his life as a spy. He tells Lorraine – but more immediately, the audience – the one thing his lifetime of distrust and deception has taught him: “I fucking love Berlin!” The line is brilliant and unexpectedly resonant. The heart of the film lies in the city and the film’s greatest feat is perhaps building our love for this dynamic, thriving, magical place without ever drawing attention to it. Berlin is the backdrop to a story about heartless bastards at war with each other and, as a result, wins our affection as the one innocent of the piece. Amongst all the envoys of death, this city is the one inextinguishable voice of life.
What Leitch and Theron have created, then, is a Cold War masterpiece. A tale of bombastic energy at the end of an era. A tale of pain, brutality and perseverance in the face of that which seems endless and unconquerable. If I were to pick faults, I would look to Lorraine’s short-lived affair with French operative Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), which seems to lack any real development. Delphine’s eventual demise does a good job of showing that her character’s overt innocence cannot survive in the life she has chosen, but Lorraine’s heartbreak over it feels unfounded and somewhat out of character. Throughout the film, she has been cold as ice and unaffected by the violence that is part and parcel of her profession – Lorraine’s connection with Delphine feels more like an unnecessary afterthought. It would have felt truer to her character had their relationship been left as a one night stand before the two agents returned to their jobs. This is, however, a small flaw and this subplot does perhaps have its place, had it only been further developed.
Theron herself, in her performance as Lorraine, is incredible. Her British accent may slip a little throughout (although perhaps not always accidentally), but again, this is a nitpick. The character she creates is a through-and-through badass who endures much and gives far more than she gets. The film at no point feels the need to stop and tell us ‘women can be awesome too!’ – it just gets on with it and shows us. Lorraine doesn’t feel like anything other than the cold, determined spy she is supposed to be, and avoids the pitfalls of several other female protagonists – she’s never once objectified (even when she’s shown naked or in her underwear, the scenes feel cold and practical instead of pornographic) and she’s not being held up as some oh-so-perfect poster girl – she’s cruel, she’s violent and she’s as harsh as the world she inhabits. The character Theron gives us is a new spy icon, one who could knock the crap out of Jason Bourne and out-drink James Bond. Without her spectacular performance, the film would not have held up. This is a film driven by the great deceiver, the unstoppable fighter, the unbreakable spy. She is, quite simply, atomic.