By Preston Wilder
The place is Berlin. The time is November 1989, the fall of the Wall. The 80s songs on the soundtrack are moody, dramatic and sometimes German: ‘Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)’, ‘Der Kommissar’, ‘I Ran’, ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’, etc. None of them actually came out in 1989 – most seem to hail from the early 80s – but it makes no difference in Atomic Blonde which treats them as markers of 80s cool, iconic artefacts like the prominently-displayed Stolichnaya vodka and BOY London fashions. This is a very empty film but a very stylish one, or maybe it’s the other way around.
“These relationships aren’t real. They’re just a means to an end,” says our heroine Lorraine (Charlize Theron in peak Amazon mode), lying in bed beside her (female) lover. That’s the only time you’ve ever told the truth, notes the lover – and it’s probably the only time Atomic Blonde is honest too, admitting to its status as a flashy bauble: a means to an end, the end being to knock your socks off with a fluorescent 80s look (punk bars in lurid red light, that kind of thing), captions that look like graffiti, an over-active soundtrack and some of the most intense action scenes in recent memory.
One fight scene in particular (fated to be known forever as ‘the stairwell scene’) is the most extraordinary thing of its kind since the similarly visceral fight in The Bourne Ultimatum – and of course even more extraordinary in that a woman is involved in such a physically gruelling brawl. Lorraine, a top MI6 agent, is accosted by two KGB thugs on a stairwell, and a bone-crunching martial-arts marathon begins; the combatants bleed, fall, get up again, all the more amazing in that the eight-minute fight is filmed in a single continuous shot, even as real-looking evidence of injury appears on the actors’ faces (in fact, the sequence has some hidden cuts; still, it must’ve taken days of choreography). The rest of the action isn’t quite on that level, but Lorraine does use her stiletto heels to take out one baddie when trapped in a car (she then deliberately crashes the car, having first unhooked the other baddie’s seatbelt) and also fights the most relentless man-mountain since ‘Jaws’ in The Spy Who Loved Me – a bleached-blond giant who just keeps coming, even after being stabbed in the cheek with our heroine’s car keys.
Much of the mayhem is also set to pop songs (the KGB interrogates youths with a skateboard to the skull, backed by Nena’s ’99 Red Balloons’), the film doing with a straight face what Baby in Baby Driver did as a form of autism. There’s a plot of sorts – both sides looking for a list that reveals the identities of Cold War spies, including a notorious double agent known as ‘Satchel’ – but there’s still a very decadent feel to Atomic Blonde, a sense that everything here is being done for effect (‘a means to an end’). The spy plot is mined for Cold War chic, the songs and fashions (and endless cigarettes) are 80s chic; everything is being used, nothing is real – even the very real protesters seen on TV, who actually brought down the actual Wall. The film is on a par with James McAvoy’s cynical hustler, who’s gone “somewhat native” and hangs around East Berlin trading blue jeans and girlie mags.
The assumption is that Lorraine and David Percival (that’s McAvoy) will become a romantic item, or at least a team – but it doesn’t happen, Lorraine going for lovely Delphine (Sofia Boutella) instead, and in fact Percival is revealed as a closet misogynist who snarls that “women are always getting in the way of progress”. The film is PC (or ‘woke’, in American parlance), implicitly equating the Wall coming down with the new world promised by today’s progressive agenda, LGBT rights and female empowerment – yet even this wokeness feels a bit insincere, just another chic thing to put before the camera. Get this into “your thick primitive skull,” says Lorraine, pounding yet another unfortunate Russian – but what matters here is the pounding; the notion of a New Woman getting the better of ‘primitive’ men is just dressing, like James Bond’s infamous puns after killing this or that henchman.
None of it is real, just a means to an end – yet the end is accomplished: Atomic Blonde really does knock your socks off. Jaded viewers may snigger when the opening credits appear just as David Bowie starts to wail “with gasoli-i-i-i-ine…” (and the song is already owned by Inglourious Basterds anyway), but the buzz that moment gives is undeniable, and the film is full of such moments. Flashy style, properly wielded, can be its own reward, especially when the action is so impressive. Even those who see through this eminently see-through-able movie may well shrug and enjoy it anyway, echoing our heroine’s description of a cool Berlin punk bar: “Look at all these hedonists!”.
DIRECTED BY David Leitch
STARRING Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
US 2017 115 mins