Secret Agent Woman, by Bob Connally

1 Aug

At the start of David Leitch’s new Cold War action-packed spy thriller we are told that in November of 1989 the Berlin Wall came down but that, “This is not that story.” Instead, Atomic Blonde deals with MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) and her efforts that same month to recover a microfilm which contains the identities of every active field agent in the Eastern Bloc. Lorraine is a stone cold killer paired with another MI6 agent in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy) to find the list and to kill a double agent known only as Satchel.

The main action of the film is told in flashback as Lorraine relates the events to her superior officer Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and to CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). The story she tells unfolds like a cross between an intricately woven John Le Carre work and a pulpier Ian Fleming James Bond novel. The screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart) pulls off the Fleming side much more ably, as the plot developments become needlessly complicated. This never really needed to be a movie that keeps us guessing but, if Johnstad wanted to make that a part of the screenplay, he could have done a better job of it.

For Leitch’s (uncredited as the co-director of the original John Wick) part, he excels at delivering fantastic action sequences and giving the film a strong (at times a bit too strong) sense of style. Atomic Blonde works best as an action-driven character piece for Theron. When Lorraine is pummeling KGB or Stasi agents in apartments and on staircases the movie soars. The fight scenes reveal character as Lorraine displays her ingenuity and ruthlessness in life or death situations. In a nine-minute long sequence with no discernible cuts (edits are cleverly hidden throughout), Leitch creates a mesmerizing fight scene which will be talked about for years to come. Theron gets the opportunity to shine not only in these scenes but in the quieter moments as well. Some have called Theron a “female James Bond” here but really there’s more nuance to Lorraine Broughton than there is to Bond. There’s a character with some depth and Theron brings that to light.

The ensemble cast does just fine but this is Theron’s movie and it adds up to being better than the majority of the films in the Bond series which it’s being compared to. The convoluted story turns are its biggest issue. Also, for a movie that relies heavily on its soundtrack Leitch’s song choices are largely uninspired. Don’t get me wrong, I love David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” but I never need to hear it in another movie again. “99 Luftballoons” by Nena and “Major Tom” by Peter Schilling have made numerous appearances on film and television soundtracks, as well. They’re great Cold War era songs but using them yet again is unimaginative.

It’s hard to say if there could be a sequel but I would welcome another outing for Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton if the right story idea came along. Setting this at the end of the Cold War could make that tricky as the character feels ideally suited to that time and place. Either way, between Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road and now Lorraine, Theron has proven she’s one of this era’s best action stars.

Atomic Blonde is held back by trying to be cleverer than it needs to be and not succeeding, but it delivers exactly what you’d hope in terms of a great action lead in Charlize Theron and its incredible fight sequences directed by David Leitch.

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