SUB-ATOMIC

CHAR­L­IZE THERON EL­E­VATES SPY GENRE TO STYLISH LEVEL (IF YOU IG­NORE THE CON­TRIVED BITS).

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - Na­tional Post Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde — a Cold-War-era spy ac­tion movie star­ring Char­l­ize Theron as an MI6 spy sent on an im­pos­si­ble mis­sion in East Berlin — was made pos­si­ble by two films: Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick.

The for­mer gave us Theron’s turn as the shaved-head Fu­riosa, who im­me­di­ately be­came an iconic fem­i­nist sym­bol and proved the ac­tress could han­dle her own ac­tion fran­chise. The lat­ter, star­ring Keanu Reeves as a re­tired, re­venge-seek­ing as­sas­sin, re­vi­sioned the con­tem­po­rary ac­tion movie to fo­cus a lit­tle less on the genre’s hy­per­mas­culin­ity and pro­duce some­thing aes­thet­i­cally slick, stylish, and imag­i­na­tive.

Theron makes Atomic Blonde stylish with her sheer pres­ence. Her ever-chang­ing at­tire, a white, black and grey wardrobe full of chic trench coats, sexy panty­hose and a va­ri­ety of knee­high boots is as on point as her mar­tial-arts skills. But the film, with its gloomy monochro­matic colour pal­ette, com­pi­la­tion of 1980s hit sin­gles and punk­ish neon-colour spray-paint ty­pog­ra­phy can’t keep up. While Theron kicks as much ass as her char­ac­ter Lor­raine Broughton, Atomic Blonde’s sto­ry­line and film­mak­ing are dis­ap­point­ingly weak.

Broughton is brought in for ques­tion­ing by her su­pe­ri­ors, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA chief Em­met Kurzfeld (John Good­man), fol­low­ing her failed mis­sion in East Berlin to re­cover a con­fi­den­tial list of Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence names that, in the wrong hands, could un­der­mine MI6’s en­tire op­er­a­tion. Broughton was as­signed to work with MI6’s top agent, David Per­ci­val (James McAvoy), but the brash Bri­tish bad boy’s an­tics im­me­di­ately re­veal him to be dou­ble-cross­ing some­one and/or every­one, which in the spy genre means more char­ac­ter de­ceits are afoot (and they are).

A good spy thriller, of course, with or with­out ac­tion, weaves its mys­tery to keep the viewer won­der­ing who’s on who’s side and who’s dou­ble-cross­ing whom, but Atomic Blonde’s mud­dled plot is far too con­fus­ing and bor­ing to fol­low or care about. One agent (Sam Har­grave) close to Broughton is mys­te­ri­ously killed; she finds as­sis­tance in Del­phine, a French agent (Sofia Boutella) with whom she de­vel­ops a sex­ual bond; Broughton also must save a be­spec­ta­cled MI6 con­fi­dante named Spy­Glass (Ed­die Marsan); these un­aided mini-mis­sions make Atomic Blonde feel like a per­func­tory video game. In­deed, the gloomy at­mos­phere and Theron’s cold, de­ter­mined de­meanour add to a rather joy­less ex­pe­ri­ence.

Theron’s pres­ence car­ries a se­ri­ous­ness that needs to be com­ple­mented, not matched, but the film’s tone tries to out­som­bre the ac­tress, which ends up mak­ing it feel un­nec­es­sar­ily mo­rose. The few fun mo­ments are fleet­ing: Good­man’s nat­u­ral warmth adds a wise­crack­ing smirk­i­ness to the in­ter­ro­ga­tion, Theron’s oc­ca­sional dead­pan replies to Jones’s earnest ques­tion­ing (es­pe­cially about her sex­ual pro­cliv­i­ties) are en­ter­tain­ing, and oh yes, the cen­tre­piece ac­tion scene un­folds with the ab­surd hu­mour of John Wick (di­rec­tor David Leitch also codi­rected that film).

Try­ing to keep Spy­Glass safe in East Berlin, Broughton comes up against a re­lent­less string of Stasi hit men; a ruth­less car chase and a cat-and-mouse sweep through a decrepit apart­ment build­ing finds the Atomic Blonde doggedly tak­ing each one down with guns, knives, and fi­nally lamps and other house­hold items, while the in­jured Spy­Glass at­tends to his wound — a comic mo­ment ap­pre­ci­ated by the au­di­ence, though I was later won­der­ing what was so funny. Was it that a help­less man was helped by an ass-kick­ing woman?

The gen­dered dy­nam­ics of Atomic Blonde are some­thing we haven’t seen be­fore, and it’s mostly due to Theron’s pro­duc­ing ef­forts: the role is writ­ten as if it were in­tended for a guy, the les­bian sex scenes nor­mal­ize the idea that two women can ca­su­ally have sex with each other, and Theron’s face and body are ac­tu­ally al­lowed to show the ugly scrapes that ac­com­pany fight­ing.

Theron also did 98 per cent of the stunt work on the movie. These facts shouldn’t be a big deal, yet Theron’s ef­forts — on­screen and off — to pull off these feats re­veals a gen­dered in­equal­ity still at play in Hol­ly­wood.

Re­gard­less of its es­thetic qual­ity, Atomic Blonde de­serves a box-of­fice re­turn that al­lows sim­i­lar pro­jects to take off — with hope­fully less-con­trived re­sults in the fu­ture. 

PHO­TOS: JONATHAN PRIME / FO­CUS FEA­TURES VIA THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Char­l­ize Theron did 98 per cent of the stunt work for her role as Lor­raine Broughton in the Cold War-era spy ac­tion movie Atomic Blonde.

Char­l­ize Theron and James McAvoy in Atomic Blonde. The film has a gloomy, monochro­matic colour pal­ette, Tina Hassannia says.

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