Atomic Blonde is a brutal, stylish action movie in which Charlize Theron beats up KGB agents and has showy, aestheticized sex with Sofia Boutella.
If this were the ’80s — the decade during which the film takes place — that setup would read like one intended to play to a grimy theater full of dudes who turned up to see a beautiful leading lady kill Soviets and woman-on-woman action. But in 2017, a female-centric action saga featuring queer romance sounds more like the stuff of empowerment than exploitation, presuming it’s done right (on top of that, “Russia” is a pretty emotionally loaded term these days). Just goes to show how what might be nationalistic, gazey trash in one decade can be reworked into a morally ambiguous milestone of representation in another.
But the reality is that Atomic Blonde is neither a reactionary neo-exploitation flick nor a boldly feminist landmark — nor is it the kind of film that wants you to think about anything at all. At a moment in which everything lends itself to a political reading, there’s something reassuring about the way the movie’s slick surfaces repel such attempts. The film, which comes from stuntman–turned–John Wick director David Leitch, could really bring the country together in appreciation of the straightforward gratification of cool clothes, pretty people, and breathtakingly choreographed violence.
Atomic Blonde features some of the most on-the-nose music choices in the history of cinema — the kind of songs (“Der Kommissar,” “99 Luftballons”) you might joke about putting in spy movie set in 1989 Berlin. It has as much fidelity to its period setting as a fake vintage T-shirt from Urban Outfitters, and enough twists to render its plot — which has something to do an executed British agent, a mole, and the fall of the Berlin Wall — totally nonsensical. It is fabulous.
That’s all tribute to the star wattage of Theron, who as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton dons a shaky English accent and strides, in flashbacks, into tumultuous Berlin on the verge of a historical moment. Framing this story, she sits an interrogation room in London defending what turns out to have been a thrillingly troubled time, staring down her superiors, played by Toby Jones and John Goodman, with unrufflable poise. John Wick had immense successes turning Keanu Reeves into an action hero as Manhattan businessman, slipping back into his suit and his assassin life after years of retirement in New Jersey. Atomic Blonde does just as good by Theron by casting her as a woman trying to harden herself into crystal for her own protection.
The movie isn’t subtle about the symbolism, but then subtlety is very far from its mode. Lorraine’s first scene is her emerging from a bath of ice water, which was intended to numb her visibly battered body, then clinking a few cubes into some Stoli to speed along the process. Despite evidence that she and her former colleague were close, she stays cool as a shaken cocktail when she’s given an assignment to go to Berlin and figure out how and why he died.
But all the arctic toughness in the world can’t make someone invulnerable, and Lorraine’s action scenes never downplay the breakability of the human body, even when she’s the one doing most of the breaking. Theron did her own stunts in the film, re-upping her badass bona fides while allowing Leitch to shoot her fights scenes in long, uncut, seriously impressive takes. The greatest of these treks up and down the staircase of an apartment building, and is such an electrifyingly convincing simulation of a sloppy, spur-of-the-moment skirmish that its bloody ending is laugh-out-loud delightful. Lorraine’s battles aren’t always easily won, but she inevitably looks awesome.
So does James McAvoy as MI6’s “gone native” Berlin chief David Percival, and Boutella as punky newbie French agent Delphine Lasalle. I was particularly smitten with McAvoy’s character, a hard-drinking hot mess who likes wearing sweater vests with no shirt underneath and who sleeps in a pile of languid lovers. McAvoy’s big blue eyes and baby face mean he’s often cast in earnest roles, so there’s a sense of elated release when he’s allowed to play against type in something like this (or as he did in Split earlier this year). David’s no fool, and there are indications from early on that he’s not nearly as out-of-control as he likes to pretend — that acting dissolute is a shield for him in the same way that acting aloof is one for Lorraine. He’s a good foil for her, and a suspect so obvious it feels like he couldn’t possibly be the person she’s hunting.
Or is he? Honestly, I’ve seen the movie, and I couldn’t untangle the ending for you to save my life. It involves a list of damning info everyone’s looking for, a defecting Stasi agent played by Eddie Marsan, and Bill Skarsgård as a local fixer sporting a variation on that haircut now beloved by the alt-right (it, admittedly, looks great on him). And then there’s Theron, with her platinum bob and her cigarettes, her assessing gaze and her flying fists. The movie leers appreciatively at her long limbs, but then it leers at everything else as well, from her costars to the neon-lit furnishings of the room Lorraine commandeers for herself. Atomic Blonde doesn’t come close to the radical, norm-flipping vision of something like Mad Max: Fury Road, but then it doesn’t aim to, doesn’t have all that much to say, if plenty to show. It’s a calorie-free serving of simple pleasures, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.