One of the most anticipated and well attended of the World Premieres at SXSW was the headliner Atomic Blonde directed by David Leitch based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston, screenplay by Kurt Johnstad.
Charlize Theron is a knockout in a role that she embodies and makes completely her own. James McAvoy is the perfect foil, treacherous, smarmy, debauched, and off-center as only an innocent-acting fellow spy might be. Together with supporting performances by John Goodman, who is always fun to watch, and Toby Jones as Grey, this action-spy-thriller will entertain those who love the genre and are looking for a thrill ride without too much profundity.
I cannot imagine anyone else but Charlize Theron in the role of undercover agent Lorraine Broughton sent to Germany to locate a dossier which contains a list of every spy and double agent on every side during the last days of the Cold War. The dossier/spy list must not fall into the “wrong hands.”
The setting is East Germany/West Germany a few days before the Berlin Wall is torn down by anyone who was present and had a pick axe or appropriate implements. These are the days when freedom is in the wind; East and West Berlin are chaotic akin to the wild west. The “lawlessness” of justice and the end of injustice is possible. In this crazy atmosphere no one knows who the enemies are, nor do they know their friends. Spies from the CIA, MI6, KGB, and Stazi are thick. Each is surveilling the other. The spies’ real names are not known, not even by some of their handlers.
Into this mix comes Lorraine Broughton taciturn, uber sexy, urbane, taste dripping from every pore (Theron’s outfits and heels are fitting), coldly disaffected, explosive when called for, sensitive and emotionally truthful in private. These are just a few of the traits she manifests. Add to that she has the courage of a lion and the perspicacity of a live-wired creature mentally ready to die, yet flexible enough to escape by a hair’s-breath.
As a woman she is easy to underestimate, but time and again, and especially in the apartment building scene (shot in what appears to be a marvelous one-take), she is a weapon incarnate. Her physicality radiates a power likened to the film title (atomic), that is both hyperbole and irony. It is in the splitting of the atom that its power is released. Atomized and disaffected emotionally and soulfully, when Broughton struggles “to the death” her lethal fractiousness reaches its full capacity.
The film is a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Initially, after we see her “lick her wounds” and attempt to recover with an ice bath and vodka from a horrific bruising, Broughton is debriefed by her handlers (Toby Jones, John Goodman, James Faulkner). She must relate the circumstances as she experienced them while they pick through the debris of her commentary and ask the tough questions. Immediately, we sense that she is coming from a place of weakness. She is the controlled, not the controlling. This could mean she has messed up royally and is on the hot seat because she has failed to deliver the goods. Or perhaps something else is going on, sub rosa? The mystery thickens the plot details.
During the course of her description, events unspool in flashback. We are introduced to all of the players, key among them station chief David Percival (McAvoy), the mark with the list-Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), and Sandrine (Sofia Boutella), with whom she develops a potential love relationship and who helps her in her quest to discover who the double agents are and who might or might not be trusted.
With breaks in the action sequences, the filmmakers allow their audience to breathe as the plot arc intensifies. Might the story-line threads have been pumped up toward a greater clarity without sacrificing the ending surprises and triumph of Broughton? Perhaps. However, rather than to risk sacrificing the pacing, the action sequences’ build up and the ending, Leitch has muted the clarity to deliver. Indeed, this muting adds to the chaos and confusion of the time and enhances the tone of the film which is another way to represent the wildness of the period.
A thematic point that the film does clarify is that elements of the various intelligence groups work together only up to a point. There is always the need for ego, the need to save face, the desire for supremacy, no matter how subtly displaced. In that the film is intriguing and current. In the cinematography, lighting, pacing, thrill ride, you will not be disappointed. McAvoy and Theron work well together as do the rest of the ensemble.
The Q and A after the film revealed that Theron trained for three months assiduously to rise to the level where she could master the fight sequences in the film. During the process she cracked two teeth, clenching them while fighting. She had to have surgery and is still dealing with the injuries. She also practiced some fighting with Keanu Reeves who was working on fight production scenes for John Wick. She gained courage working with him. Theron is amazing to watch in Atomic Blonde, a veritable terror in how determined she is to single-handedly dispense with the thuggish killers sent by a double agent who has been dispatching other spies and very nearly adds Broughton to his killing fields.
Though rooted in the graphic novel genre, Leitch and his team ably crossover with this film and bring to it their own heightened realism. They do this
pointedly during the action sequences. In these the audience will probably find their most memorable satisfaction. The film is scheduled to open in July.