In many ways, aspects of Atomic Blonde will be really familiar to fans of high-octane action movies. It invests a lot in ambitious set pieces and fight choreography, and features many predictable character archetypes. But it manages to tie together its Cold War setting and character arcs into a larger theme very, very well.
Adapted from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s Oni Press comic The Coldest City and directed by David Leitch—who’s signed on for Deadpool 2—Atomic Blonde screened last night in Austin at SXSW. It unfolds in flashback, as Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an elite operative in Britain’s MI6 intelligence division debriefs her superiors about a 1989 mission to extract sensitive information from Berlin. From the first, Broughton comes across as icily aloof, even as it’s shown that she had a romantic past with a murdered colleague. She seems to only care about completing her mission. That goal gets complicated when she has to partner with David Percival (James McAvoy), an undercover spy who’s embraced the underground, anything-goes chaos roiling through East and West Berlin a little too heartily.
The end of the Cold War serves as the backdrop for the movie, which sprinkles real-world news reports as reminders of the political stakes that hang in the balance for the American, British, and Russian governments. Glimpses of punk, hip-hop, and skate culture add texture to the proceedings and the repressive response to them makes Berlin feel like a dangerous place that’s ready to explode at any moment. It’s presented as a time when the cultural footing is unclear and traditional allegiances can’t be trusted. Late ’80s pop is used to great effect and one of the movie’s best sequences is set to George Michael’s “Father Figure.”
Director David Leitch worked on John Wick before Atomic Blonde and, in terms of its approach to action and aesthetic, this new film operates on the opposite end of the spectrum. The fight staging doesn’t come across as slick, smooth, or elegantly choreographed. Instead, face-offs happen with brutal intimacy that harkens back to old-school Hong Kong action dramas. Theron throws herself into Atomic Blonde’s fight scenes with stunning ferocity, letting herself get flung, smashed, and bludgeoned in ways that look all too real. She gives better than what she gets, though, as seen in a six-minute long brawl in an East Berlin apartment that will likely go down as a classic movie fight. As Percival, McAvoy doesn’t get as much of a spotlight in the action department but makes up for it by making his character luridly indulgent and seductive. John Goodman does great supporting work as a CIA honcho that Broughton barely tolerates, filling the role with huffy bureaucrat tics that make him a perfect foil.
What’s stuck with me after seeing Atomic Blonde is the portrait it paints of the emotional decay that happens to espionage agents. It’s not virgin territory for the super-spy genre but Theron and McAvoy make the core conceit come to life in wary, electric performances. Everyone’s paranoid and twitchy with nervous energy and there’s a sour astringency that moves through the entire film. All the film’s major characters wind up changed by the shifting political sands of this Cold War inflection point, and Atomic Blonde finds surprising depth by delving into the existential considerations of spycraft, questioning exactly how and when a good spy who does terrible things can stop believing that they’re doing good.
Atomic Blonde will have a wide release this summer.