Mark Reviews Movies

Atomic Blonde

ATOMIC BLONDE

2.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Leitch

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Sofia Boutella, Roland Møller, Bill Skarsgård, Jóhannes Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Sam Hargrave

MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 7/28/17


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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2017

The thriller Atomic Blonde is a routine exercise in spy games, bolstered by some dynamic and brutal action sequences. The combatants here aren't invulnerable, and they don't possess an unlimited reservoir of energy. Near the end of the fight that serves as the second part of a three-part climax (presented as an uninterrupted shot, which moves from a stairwell to a room, to a car), the two opponents are bruised, bloodied, and exhausted. They have to struggle in order to stand, and once they're on their feet, the act of taking even a step toward each other is a stumbling one.

This is one of those details that we don't genuinely appreciate in the movies until we see it done. It has become so commonplace for our action heroes to be more-or-less superhuman. They can do pretty much anything, and breaking a sweat seems to be the height of showing that there is some exertion to their actions. Our first view of Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is of her getting into a bathtub filled with ice. Her body is covered in cuts and bruises. She has difficulty moving, even in this fairly routine act. Our first thought is that this is a heroine who can take a lot of punishment. Our second thought is a hope that we get to see the other guy.

We do eventually, but there are a lot of twists, flashbacks, shoptalk, and some unreliable narration to get through in order to get there. The primary story is set in the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A secondary story is set a day or two later, as, within a room containing a two-way mirror and filled with intelligence bureaucrats, Lorraine is debriefed on her mission in a now-reunited Berlin. At first, the second story seems like a narrative device, but anyone who knows these kinds of tales also knows that the revelations don't stop until the credits start rolling.

The Berlin plot has to do with a top-secret list of every intelligence agent—from both sides of the Cold War—in the field. A British operative with MI6 obtained it from a Stasi officer (played by Eddie Marsan) who wants to defect. The agent was killed by a Soviet spy, who stole the list.

The head of MI6, codenamed "C" (James Faulkner), and Eric Gray (Toby Jones), her immediate superior, send Lorraine to West Berlin to track down the intel, which could extend the Cold War into the foreseeable future. After the mission is complete, the MI6 officials and a CIA man named Kurzfeld (John Goodman) are questioning her about the mission.

That's about it, but it's obviously complicated by the unclear allegiances and alliances of the various players. There's also the matter of the list revealing a double agent. Could it be David Percival (James McAvoy), the head of the field office in East Berlin and Lorraine's contact in the city? He has become pretty influential there, looking and acting the part of the ringleader of a black market that sells things from the West.

Could it be Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a French woman who is at the airport when Lorraine arrives, photographs the MI6 agent wherever she goes, and gets quite intimate with the Brits' woman in Berlin after a few drinks at a local bar? Delphine works for French intelligence, and while she seems to be a greenhorn at all this spy stuff, it's not too farfetched to think it could be an act. It could be someone else entirely—maybe someone working behind the scenes. The answer isn't much of a surprise, considering how much obvious distraction is happening in the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (adapting a series of graphic novels by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart).

The answer, also, isn't really the point, until the plot continues after its logical climax (that three-part action sequence). The entire point of the plot, it appears, is to create confusion and doubt. It seems that everyone here is recording everyone else with hidden microphones. Information is kept from us through some aural and visual editing (One character revealing something about another character is obscured by loud music, and a look at the list is cut short just before we get to the good stuff). The trickery is to be expected, but there's little beneath the mechanics of the plot to make it anything more than a series of obfuscating tricks.

There is a lot to admire here, though. Director David Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela give the movie a chilly look, from the starkness of a Berlin winter to the cool, blue neon lighting of Lorraine's hotel room. Theron makes for a fine action hero—tough, cold, enigmatic. What's refreshing about this particular character is that she's allowed to have the same aura of mystery that is usually only afforded to men in a similar role. She exists here simply to do her job and do it well.

Theron is the right actress for this role, and the various action sequences in Atomic Blonde allow her an opportunity to show off her physical prowess and a very human level of weariness at the toll of this work. It's just a shame that the performance is in service to a hollow, confounding bit of spy business.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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