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Atomic Blonde is an action spy thriller featuring Charlize Theron as the neon-lit badass goddess, sashaying frostily through many a Berlin nightclub in revealing evening outfit, where she might accept with a famous half-smile a Stoli-on-the-rocks and some badinage at the bar from multiple admirers, male and female, before putting the smackdown on some brutish East German gangsters.
It is recreated by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City of Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, and similar to many films derived from graphic novels, it leans towards the frenetically edited, hyperactively wacky and Ritchie-esque, and this isn’t helped by the flashback aspect. But Atomic Blonde also provides some horrifically good one-on-one fighting sequences – much more continuously and realistically filmed than the rest of Atomic Blonde movie– crunchily terrible extended punch-ups in which Theron shows some serious martial arts chops.
It kicks off with Lorraine Broughton (Theron), an American agent working for MI6 at the end of the cold war in Atomic Blonde movie, getting interrogated by hatchet-faced British intelligence types – oddly like Ricki Tarr, as portrayed by the late Hywel Bennett in the 70s TV version of Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Covered in bruises and wounds that would have killed any other spy, Broughton chillingly brings her incompetent and duplicitous bosses up to speed about her disastrous mission: she had been sent over to Berlin to investigate the death of a fellow agent, come into contact with MI6’s eccentric station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) and find a Macguffin-y stolen list of agents in the field, compiled by a “turned” Stasi operative, codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan).
This is all complicated by the fact that the Berlin wall is about to come crashing down. But things had gone horribly wrong, and it seems that (again, in classic Le Carré terms) there is a mole hidden among the good guys. Where? Who?
Theron picks it up with style for certain, and there are tons of prurient scenes of Theron, nude and bruised in a glitzy hotel room enjoying a post-fisticuff ice bath. She could have done with a smarter and more literate script, like the one Diablo Cody gave her in Young Adult.
I can’t think of any actor more worthy of their own pulpy action series than Charlize Theron. Having literally stolen Mad Max: Fury Road from Tom Hardy one-handed, she is unbeatably, murderously wonderful in this adaptation of Antony Johnston’s graphic novel The Coldest City. The setting is Berlin just before the fall of the Wall; the paranoid hangover of the cold war is giving way to a new era of hungry opportunism. A British agent has been murdered; a valuable list is missing. And MI5 precious Lorraine Broughton (Theron, looking like Debbie Harry dipped in venom) is flown in to take care of the mess. There she encounters fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy, skeevy-sexy, dressed with beer sweats and casual treachery) and has a thing for rookie French spy Delphine (Sofia Boutella, loads of smouldering in fishnet body stockings).
First time Atomic Blonde movie director David Leitch favours a sleazy, neon aesthetic that looks like an X-rated, ultraviolent knock-off of a Duran Duran video. The music is a loosely credible mix tape of 80s pop-rock featuring New Order, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees and, probably inevitably, Nena’s 99 Luftballons. But it’s in the action of Atomic Blonde movie that Leitch, used to be a stunt co-ordinator and second unit director, shines the most. Most notable is the blitzkrieg of an action climax, a 10-minute “single shot” as ambitious as anything in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which sees Lorraine crunch and batter her way in and back out of a dank East Berlin tenement, using guns, feet, fists, a two-ring hotplate, a corkscrew and a car to dispatch the Soviet agents on her tail.
In fact, the appearance of a one-take scene is brought by seamlessly stitching together almost 40 separate shots. But even knowing this doesn’t lessen the pulse-pounding, propulsive thrust. You forget to breathe. More essentially, you forget to wonder the needlessly complex layers of double-crossing that clog up the third act of an otherwise impressively neat and clean piece of storytelling.