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