Director: David Leitch
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Bouteilla, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones
Plot: As the Berlin Walls prepares to come down, the British and the Soviets fight over a list of undercover spies. The UK send in top agent, Lorraine Broughton (Theron).
There has been a lot of talk about a female James Bond these days. Doctor Who is getting a gender reboot, so why can’t James Bond? My opinion of the matter is: why would the girls want to steal an already-established, and well worn in male fantasy, franchise, rather than create its own? Surely the better answer is to create a brand new, bad-ass female action hero to go toe-to-toe with Bond, rather than a rebranding that will struggle to escape the shadow of the entries before it. Atomic Blonde, while the ending suggesting this is a series that doesn’t have the longevity of 007, is a strong start for creating that female action hero.
Theron is bad-ass from the first shot of her taking a bath in a tub full of ice (which she later uses to chill her straight vodka nightcap). The first, second and probably one demand the producers had for the director and writers of this film is ‘create a leading lady that explodes onto our screens’. And we certainly get that. Theron is dressed up in the very best of 80s fashion, looking jaw-droppingly gorgeous in every frame, and fixed with the look of a cold-hearted killer. There is no tragic back-story, no origin tale here. Theron’s MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, is simply a trained killer, because this is a movie about a trained killer. And while there are a handful of shots that exude sexuality, director Leitch is not afraid to allow Theron to embrace ugliness too. The opening shot shows us a woman beaten to an inch of her life, one eye swollen and nasty bruises deforming her usually flawless cheekbones. Those injuries are later explained to us in a sequence of fight scenes so brutal, we would flinch if 007 received them, let alone a female. It is very rare that James Bond takes on a punch-up as graphically violent as Broughton manages here, one memorable scene that borrows from Netflix’s Daredevil and Oldboy when it comes to one-take fight scenes, a clear example of how much Broughton can take. It also acts as a fair warning to the female Bond advocates: if you want a girl in the 007 role, be prepared to have to stomach the dizzying violence Theron endures here. At the same time, you never feel sorry for her, Theron’s character giving as good as she gets. Theron is no stranger to action (doubling this with Mad Max and she is bound to have an action movie box-set released in her name anytime soon), her fight choreography here proving that she is a trained fighter. Each blow causes winces in the audience. While there is one fight scene in particular that will steal the glory, truthfully every punch deserves credit. Every skirmish is given shudderingly authentic realism, a definite treat for action fans everywhere. If we are being perfectly honest, this is the kind of role Theron can just show up for. As soon as the British accent is committed into her nature, she drifts through the role with icy professionalism. This is not an insult; that is the character. It does allow James McAvoy to bring the acting side of things to Atomic Blonde, but he still feels like a footnote to Theron’s badass nature.
Everything else is just the icing on the cake. Leitch smashes through Atomic Blonde with a delicious sense of humour. With an electronic 80s soundtrack that brings a childish grin to the audience’s faces and a neon spray-paint font peppered throughout the title cards, Atomic Blonde isn’t just a cool heroine. It’s a cool film, full stop! With action movies that are primed to be unadulterated fun, it is easy to miss the intelligence behind the colouring or cinematography of each shot. This is a very smart film. You just wish that Leitch would spend less time appeasing the cool factor of the movie and focus that little bit more on story. The narrative isn’t up too much cop, using the Cold War setting without ever truly making use of the depth of the genre. The plot isn’t too hard to follow, a missing list and a double agent at large in Berlin, various parties on the hunt to track both down. However, Leitch uses Tarantino techniques of chopping up the timeline to make the simple plot sound far more complicated than it is. It weighs Atomic Blonde down, which is a shame, because it is the kind of film which is dying to soar free of restraints. It would have been better off scrapping the mystery angle and writing up a decent villain from the get-go, a powerful force of nature strong enough to take on Broughton. As a result, Atomic Blonde is a film where Charlize Theron is the only character worth remembering. This is a film where the individual scenes are amazingly shot, passionately directed by Leitch, a name to watch in the future, yet a film that struggles to hold each good idea together. You leave the cinema amazed, but the cool elegance soon fades. We haven’t quite found that 007 staying power just yet.
Final Verdict: The fights are outstanding and Charlize Theron is a solid female action hero, but Atomic Blonde is too weighty in the wrong places.