Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

atomic_blonde_posterMix source material graphic novel The Coldest City with classic thrillers like The French Connection, add in some modern Hong Kong-inspired action sequences and killer-thrillers like John Wick, and set it to the soundtrack of a 1989 Berlin discotheque, and you have Atomic Blonde.

It’s a perfect cocktail of fun, sexy, cool, and brutal as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) combs through Berlin on assignment to find a secret dossier that details all the identities and dirty laundry of secret agents around the world on all sides of the Cold War. It’s literally the weeks before the Berlin Wall is about to fall, making it even more dangerous as both sides are playing as though they have nothing left to lose.

Complicating matters is Britain’s station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone native, engaging in smuggling and information brokering beyond his normal job duties. Lorraine is also tasked with using the hunt for the list to uncover a mole within the agency who has been passing information to the Soviets. Further complicating things is French agent Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), with whom things get too close, and too personal, for Lorraine.

The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Scenes are framed like comic book panels, and the cold blue and grey color palate — punctuated by the occasional stark neon — help evoke  the specific time and place of the film’s setting.

What helps set this even more in late 80’s Cold War Berlin is the film’s soundtrack. A heavy industrial synth backbone of Depeche Mode, Ministry, and New Order are offset by the tenderness of Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” which takes on an added emotional resonance as a sort of love theme in the film. Depeche Mode reminds us “Sweet little girl/I’d prefer/ you behind the wheel/ and me the passenger” which becomes a sort of feminist anthem as we recognize that songs is now about Lorraine and Percival– and also gets us amped for a cool action sequence. Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” is used perfectly in an eye-popping, jaw-dropping chase scene, and David Bowie makes not one, but two appearances on the soundtrack, giving the film its sort of ethos of “putting out fires with gasoline.”

As amazing and perfect as the soundtracks to Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, this is the soundtrack of the year.

One of the other most fun elements in the film is how it’s told– completely in flashback, with a beat-up, post-mission Lorraine being debriefed by her MI-6 handler (a perpetually uncomfortable-looking Toby Jones) and a senior official from the CIA (an incredibly annoyed John Goodman). The interplay between Theron, Jones, and Goodman is masterful and is the apotheosis of the beautiful character work that prevents this film from being simply a bloody spy thriller. We also see Lorraine holding back key details, letting us know she isn’t exactly the most reliable of narrators. This draws heavily from other great thrillers that use this device like The Usual Suspects, but also manages to be its own film.

One of the things that makes this so unique is its portrayal of a completely bisexual protagonist. And unlike James Bond who seems to hold little sentiment for his various romantic conquests who end up dead, Lorraine is motivated by her feelings for those she has fallen for. But, she’s still a kickass spy who puts her business first– we just also see a very human emotional toll this takes.

So much of the credit for this film need to go to director David Leitch. Best known as a stunt and second unit director who also cut his teeth on John Wick, Leitch is able to bring a dazzling and unique visual style sorely lacking in so many blockbusters. He also puts together a hell of a fight scene, one where we as the audience feel the weight of every blow and crunch of every bone and sinew. It helps that he’s drawing from The Coldest City graphic novel, whose authors get a script credit, to bring such a great story to life. But he does it with such great visual and auditory panache that this becomes one of the best movies of 2017, and a super cool way to chill out during the dog days of summer.

Go see this, then spend hours with your friends coming up with slash/fiction where Lorraine, John Wick, and the characters from Kingsman all meet up and fight each other.

4 out of 5 stars