James McAvoy and Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde.
It must be pretty difficult to resist doing at least one action movie in a career. Once maligned as either the territory of monosyllabic musclemen or of down-their-luck A-listers, the action film now has a certain detached cachet it never really had. Not many action movies take themselves entirely seriously these days. This probably has something to do with an industry that is mostly comprised of people who came up at a time when action movies (as opposed to Westerns, war films and swashbucklers) were always the norm. I also think it has a lot to do with ego. The things that happen in action movies only happen in action movies; you may be a double Oscar winner and the most respected thespian in your field, but you will never get to see yourself kick a Russian dude out of a window unless you accept an action movie.
In that sense, it’s not surprising at all to see Charlize Theron appear in a movie of Atomic Blonde’s caliber. She’s an Oscar-winning actress, sure; she’s a top box-office star, sure; she’s Furiosa, sure. Yet Atomic Blonde, for all of its hip cachet, feels more like the kind of movie that used to be made to break out a star than the ones made to harness one. (Theron’s made a few of those herself – Aeon Flux, anyone?) That’s not so much a knock against Atomic Blonde as it is against the very fixed sub-sub-subgenre it inhabits, the kind of post-ironic action film that’s both extremely complex in the way its action is broadcast and extremely concerned with notions of badassdom. It would be very hard for nearly anyone to turn down Atomic Blonde given what happens in it, but it also has a very clear ceiling.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, one of MI-6’s top agents. Bruised and battered, she’s brought in to debrief a mission that seemingly went awry in Berlin days before – just as the wall fell. As she explains to her superior (Toby Jones) and a visiting CIA agent (John Goodman), she was tasked with putting an end to a convoluted shake-up in the order that has left a fellow agent dead and another (Eddie Marsan) in danger. Teaming up with MI-6’s man on the ground in Berlin (James McAvoy), she infiltrates a world of shady Russians and ruthless turncoats in order to locate a supposed list of operatives that contains the identity of the double agent that may be responsible for the whole mess in the first place.
Given the film’s setting, it has already inspired many comparisons with the most famous spy of all filmdom – but really, Atomic Blonde exists somewhere between the heightened post-noir accents of John Wick (which was, perhaps not coincidentally, co-directed by Atomic Blonde helmer David Leitch) and the more boring neon bits of Tony Scott’s The Hunger. (Or kind of like American Gigolo if he was always killing people, I guess.) Like the aforementioned Keanu Reeves bionic hitman film, it’s filled with mirror surfaces and red lights bleeding into inky dark walls, a sort of posh underworld that probably never exists in the real world. As in John Wick, the world of Atomic Blonde has its own twisted internal logic that does not particularly care if you are on board with it.
Leitch leans a little too hard on the ’80s music-video aesthetic in the early going, turning the title cards into extremely corny graffiti-stencil text and devoting many of the film’s early scenes to neon-soaked shots of Theron smoking while chart-topping synthpop jams blare on. (Leitch is also extremely on the nose with the music cues – “I Ran” during a chase scene, “London Calling” during a scene in London and “Voices Carry” while an assassination attempt occurs unbeknownst to the characters on the other side of the door. The choice to have a bunch of mohawked punks drink and dance to “Fight the Power,” on the other hand…) It’s a very carefully crafted and very specifically stylized film in a way that isn’t seen too much anymore, but when that kind of stuff was being done, it wasn’t necessarily great, either. It has this kind of ambling, music video pace that never fully coexists with its excess of plot and back-alley shenanigans.
All that Eurythmics video shit is the rage these days, of course, and to Leitch’s credit, he stops short of making the film into an actual pastiche of ’80s action films. It’s a 2017 action movie set in the ’80s when most things have it the other way around. Atomic Blonde does have some serious pacing problems early on, beholden to its clumsy debriefing structure and to establishing Theron’s character by showing her wearing a cool outfit to a place that looks expensive, smoking a cigarette and probably pulling a gun on a guy if she isn’t straight up getting into car chases. For its first half, Atomic Blonde is an okay though progressively forgettable boilerplate action movie.
Then that scene happens.
I have never more thoroughly changed speeds on a film thanks to a single scene. This is the entire point, I think – it’s a scene unlike any before it and any after. It’s the centerpiece of the film, yet it occurs at a moment where audiences have been trained not to expect the most explosive, violent and balletic scene in the movie. In said scene, Theron is tasked to protect Marsan, but he immediately gets injured by a bullet. Forced to cover him, she ends up fighting some of the more tenacious henchmen in the history of cinema in an apartment, using every conceivable weapon (a hotplate and corkscrew are but two of her tools of destruction) to lay waste on a couple of dudes that won’t even take getting stabbed in the head a few times for an answer.
It’s a scene that Leitch essentially frames like one continuous shot, though it isn’t exactly, and it goes from brutal to hilarious to brutal to almost beautiful in a certain fucked up way in the span of the few minutes it takes to unfold. Though Theron has been coded as badass before in the film and done some pretty impressive action work, this scene is the one where I not only understood that she is a bonafide action star – but I also saw why this movie existed in the first place. It certainly stands alone in American action cinema.
The rest of it isn’t too bad, mind you. Though fairly predictable, the film unfolds without this preoccupation with the particular patina of Berlin in 1989. It seems pretty clear to me that Atomic Blonde was always going to be a movie about how great Charlize Theron was at kicking ass (and getting her ass kicked, which happens in almost equal doses) and that all attempts to move away from that would feel superfluous. Though it’s mildly too long and certainly kind of overly poky, cartoonish in spots in a way that seems both deliberate and affected – though the performances are on the fine side of generally unremarkable (McAvoy seems to be spending most of his time off of X-Men movies toying with new tics and stares) – and the narrative overly concerned with MacGuffins, Atomic Blonde has that scene. Usually, a great scene is not enough to save a middling movie. Here, it is. It not only saves it – it elevates it. It makes everything around it worth it. No movie who could devote this amount of time to such a great action scene could have nothing on its mind. A movie that has that scene in it deserves to be made. ■
Atomic Blonde is in theatres Friday, July 28. Watch the trailer here: