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Film Review: Atomic Blonde

The spy thriller starring Charlize Theron is stylish but leaves you cold

Charlize Theron in a still from Atomic Blonde.
Charlize Theron in a still from Atomic Blonde.

The first time we see Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, a new spy thriller set in Berlin of 1989, we get a view of her in a bathtub with her back to the camera. The shot beautifully brings out the androgyny in Theron’s physical features: it makes her shoulders look broader and when we finally see her face, it’s bruised. She is the lone, hardened action hero nursing her wounds before she gets on to her next task.

Director David Leigh wants to overturn the place women have held in the traditional spy movie—the most popular being that of the Bond girl; there are notable exceptions, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) and Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990). With Theron’s introduction scene, he sets the ball rolling in his female-led take on the genre.

Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is a British agent who has been sent to Berlin to find out the truth about a fellow agent’s murder and get her hands on a very important list. As befits a spy who must do anything to get her job done, Lorraine shows various shades: In femme fatale mode, coolly dropping ice cubes in a glass of vodka as she plots her next move, making out with the younger French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) or killing off her enemies in style. In one of the movie’s best scenes, a tense single-take action set piece, she fights a bunch of men inside an apartment; Leigh used to be a stuntman who has worked in films such as Bourne Ultimatum (2007), 300 (2006) and Fight Club (1999).

The backdrop of Lasalle’s actions is a gorgeously realized Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Wall that ended the Cold War. We get snapshots of the city’s underground cultural scene; we see punks with wild hairdos and hear the electronic under-throb of ’80s pop hits. Atomic Blonde is an adaptation of graphic novel The Coldest City and one can see traces of the source material in the flamboyant stylization: spray-cans, accompanied by a sweet hiss, draw the opening credits on the screen like the graffiti on the city’s walls; characters walk from one frame into another.

And yet the pleasure of these details isn’t enough to redeem a confusing plot and the absence of emotional stakes. Half the time, I had difficulty tracking which rival agent is a true friend and who is the real backstabber. In spite of spending so much time with Lasalle, I didn’t feel the danger when she faces with life threatening situations. Most of the other characters in the movie, including David Percival (James McAvoy), Lasalle’s main contact in the city, and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) feel disposable. Sometimes, the movie is too sleek to be pulpy and sometimes, too pulpy to create any geo-political intrigue. All through, Atomic Blonde conveys an emotional distantness which, although might be deliberate, isn’t effective. There are things in it that are nice to theorize and the treatment is ultra-cool. But the film left me cold.

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