Directed by David Leitch
Starring Charlize Theron and James McAvoy
Film Review by Seamus Conlon
Early on in its running time, Atomic Blonde hits what appears at first to be a clumsy note. A brutal KGB officer uses a skateboard to batter a man to death, to the soundtrack of ’99 Red Balloons’. Ironic juxtapositions of upbeat music with violence are something of an exhausted cliché. But later on in the film we hear a sombre remix of the track in a scene that wittily incorporates an American TV presenter commenting that sampling has become the primary musical controversy of 1989. The disparity between the two scenes demonstrates one of Atomic Blonde’s greatest strengths – a knack for virtuosic visual and sonic shifts. The film’s exterior urban scenes are pervaded by an almost monochromatically grey and muted colour palette, whereas in the polychrome interior scenes the surfaces of apartments and night clubs gleam with green, yellow, red, pink, blue hues. In the viscerally violent, single-take action set-pieces we seep in and out of a stylized reality with temporary moments of slow-motion and artificial, non-diegetic sound.
One force that remains constant, however, and largely undisturbed amongst the flux of the film’s violent shifts between Atlantic and Soviet conspiracies, between street grit and psychedelic hedonism, is Lorraine Broughton, played by Charlize Theron. Lorraine is an MI6 agent sent to Berlin in 1989 to investigate the murder of an agent she formerly knew. Over the course of a plot so full of labyrinthine swerves and revelations as to be largely unintelligible not just to the audience but also to most of the film’s inhabitants, Broughton becomes acquainted with agent Percival, played by James McAvoy, with the ominous KGB brute Bremovych, played by Roland Møller, and erotically entangled with undercover French agent Delphine, played by Sofia Boutella. All players involved infiltrate the burgeoning punk subculture thriving in confidence of the imminent downfall of Soviet tyranny. Navigating the chic and seedy, decadent and graffiti-ridden corridors and backrooms of the Berlin underground party scene becomes essential for security services in a historical moment where superpower-relations are on the brink of being remoulded beyond recognition.
In a film whose protagonist is too impenetrable to allow for introspection and whose plot is so delicately complex that any apparent allegiances are bound to dissolve sooner or later, sheer kinetic action becomes the successful centerpiece of Atomic Blonde. The film’s director and former stunt-man, David Leitch, encompasses extensively choreographed and spectacularly violent combat scenes within dazzling single tracking shots, including one that spans from a blood-splattered knife fight on a stairway, all the way down onto the street and into a car chase in which the camera pans around to reveal explosion and destruction in both the front and rear view of the car. Similarly, the soundtrack unrelentingly surges on and on, intertwining thunderous 80s dance tracks with an equally aggressive electro/synth score by Tyler Bates that’s reminiscent of Cliff Martinez’ music for Nicolas Winding Refn.
Charlize Theron’s performance at the centre of the film is confidently understated to perfection for the film she’s in. She persuasively communicates the image of a formidably cunning agent, yet wisely opts not to allow that she may be perceived as having moments of inward reflection. Instead of giving a naturalistic performance of the inner drama of an MI6 spy embroiled in danger, Theron sagely plays Lorraine as inscrutable, opaque, almost an objet d’art. In a sublimely vacuous and hollow film like this, polished surfaces are everything.
Watch the official Atomic Blonde movie trailer below...