In his book America In The Movies, author Michael Woods dedicates an entire chapter to the classic Hollywood musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. In it he describes their similarities, but also explores their differences as performers. Astaire was so graceful, so skillful, that he made his routines look easy (despite the fact that none of us could dance like fucking Fred Astaire if we tried). Gene Kelly, on the other hand, made nothing look easy. Though he had the skill, his style was one of visceral determination, of hard work, of effort.
I’m not just bringing this up because of Charlize Theron’s background as a dancer, though that training evidently plays into just how successfully she can carry off all that fight choreography in Atomic Blonde. What I’m trying to say is that, if Astaire and Kelly were action stars, Astaire would be in ethereal punch-em-ups in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The Matrix. And Kelly? He’d probably be working with David Leitch by now.
As you can tell from the trailers, this movie is full of impressive fight sequences — so before we dig into all that, let’s cover the plot. On paper it sounds like a John le Carré rip off, but if you enter this tale of double-crossing secret agents expecting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy you’ll be disappointed. The story begins with an MI6 agent being murdered by a KGB agent (I think), in order to retrieve a clandestine list revealing all the various state agents on all sides (remember the first Mission: Impossible film? It’s basically like that. I think.). Oh, and it all happens in Berlin in 1989, just days before the wall comes down. That KGB agent goes rogue, intending to sell the list on the black market rather than give it to his superiors. And naturally, everybody wants to get their hands on that list: the Russians, the Brits, the French, and the Americans. The Cold War may be collapsing, but apparently the espionage circles haven’t gotten the memo.
To complicate matters, the information isn’t only located on that mysterious list. It turns out that the source, a Stasi agent with a photographic memory codenamed “Spyglass” (played by the always lovely Eddie Marsan), has also memorized the list. His goal is safe passage out of East Germany, but with so many motivations flying around it’s hard to tell if he’s made himself invaluable or simple placed a larger target on his back. Bit of both, really.
Enter Charlize Theron. She’s an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton, who is tasked by her superiors to retrieve the list before it falls into the wrong hands. She’ll have help in Berlin, in the form of their dubious man on the ground, David Percival (played by James McAvoy). She also has another mission: to deal with a double agent named Satchel, who is working for both the Russian and the British agencies, and whose identity was revealed by the list (I think) — though obviously the MI6 agent who had the list was killed before he could unmask the mole.
If I sound unsure, it’s because I am. Seriously, there is a whole lot to unpack for a movie that I thought was just going to be a stylish shoot-em-up. The story is based on a graphic novel called The Coldest City, which I haven’t read. Maybe that would help. Though this is the first feature from director David Leitch, he’s been a stunt coordinator on big films for years. He also apparently helped direct John Wick, though he was uncredited. And if I had to boil this whole review down to one simple description, it’d be this: Atomic Blonde is basically John Wick, only set in the past and with spies rather than assassins.
Both films are gloriously violent and absolutely brutal to watch. The long takes and inventive stunts don’t create a glossy sort of kick-ass; they add up to the kind of visceral viewing experience that makes you wince. Fighting doesn’t look fun in these films. It looks painful and hard and grueling. Theron attacks the sequences with the ferocity of Serena Williams playing tennis — she grunts her effort through clenched teeth. And if the camera likes to linger over her bruised and battered naked form (sometimes in an ice bath, sometimes simply taping a wire in an unseen place), I find it hard to condemn it for needless sexualization. I mean, sure, Theron is sexy, and sure, you definitely see her boobs sometimes. But you also see welts and bruises and black eyes. Keanu Reeves also had to show his scars after every fight. This style of action isn’t meant to look cool, or at least not ONLY cool. It may relish its violence, but it doesn’t glorify it. Packing a punch means taking one too.
Other reviews have gone in-depth about the various fight sequences: the one in the car, with the high heel; the one in the apartment, with the hose; the one in the stairwell, with all those stairs. You’ve gotten a taste of all of them in the trailers. All I can really add is that Theron takes a beating as well as she gives one. Toward the end, in the midst of a particularly nasty battle, she and her opponent are both stunned and heaving on the floor. She starts to get up before he does, only to collapse back against the wall. He also tries to stand, only to keel over. Sure, the dude later comes back miraculously to leap on top of her car. In fact, generally it seems to take a few too many punches and bullets to believably down any of the bad guys (though how should I know — maybe it IS that hard to kill a bad guy). But in the moment? There isn’t an ounce of Fred Astaire’s grace. It’s 100% Gene Kelly-style effort.
If you can manage to keep up with all the various state agents, double-crossings and motivations, you’ll be in for a treat. Halfway through the film I thought to myself, “This is going to be one of those rare flicks that doesn’t have a surprise twist in the end.” I was wrong. It has a twist. And then another one. Looking back, I can see little moments that telegraph them, so they aren’t unearned — though it is easily lost in the shuffle. Unlike John Wick, which used a bare-bones story of vengeance as a vehicle for all that impressive violence, the story in Atomic Blonde isn’t bare. The question is whether all that plot serves the action, or detracts from it. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
This film is like Lorraine’s drink of choice: Stoli, on the rocks. It’s cold and clear and lacks the frills we have come to expect from a summer blockbuster. It goes down smooth, it packs a punch, and it doesn’t let needless calories get in the way of your good time. But it’s gonna leave your stomach churning if you aren’t prepared. I walked out of the theater wanting a cigarette (oh god, Lorraine smokes so much, you guys) and a stiff drink… and I also wanted desperately not to ever get thrown down a stairwell. I don’t think I’ll be signing up for any MMA classes in the near future.