Overview: A spy is sent to Berlin in 1989 to investigate a murder and retrieve a potentially-incriminating list. Focus Features.; 2017; Rated R; 115 minutes.
Rolemodel: I said it the first time I saw a clip from Atomic Blonde and I stand by it now – I’ve never wanted to be anyone more than I want to be Lorraine Broughton. It was time to see a badass female fighter who could really hold her own, whose bloody teeth and left hook were believable and fearsome. A woman who could kill a man with her bare hands or her fiery, biting words. I fell in love with Lorraine when, minutes into the film she whispered “cocksucker” to her superiors under her belt. This isn’t a woman with an aversion to authority. She’s just smarter. Stronger. Better. Indispensable. And she knows it.
Aside from her gnarly ass-kicking, Lorraine’s language–body and dialogue–is her greatest strength. She never says more than what’s required but not always what’s expected. She stands behind what she says, and is willing to take or lay out any beating that follows it. The closest I ever get to this is telling someone to “take off your fucking backpack” on the train, fists clenched, bolstered by the silent support of other sweaty, cranky commuters who resent being crammed in with idiots. But Lorraine really has nobody to back her up because that’s the life she chose. She’s unable to grieve the loss of her lover or invest in meaningful relationships. She’s gotta roll with every punch and kiss her own scrapes and bruises.
The Goods: Scrapes and bruises abound in Atomic Blonde, both the ones Lorraine gives and receives. Our first glimpse of her is her battered body submerged in an ice bath, her beaten face lit by harsh fluorescents. As the film progresses and she recounts her story, we’ll be treated to the artful fight scenes that really are the strongest point of the movie. This comes as no surprise, as Leitch is well-known for his hand in John Wick and his stunt work in both 300 movies. He excels at choreographing an entertaining–even beautiful–fight while still delivering on the kind of brutal gore that makes the audience flinch.
Every fight is a work of art, but the destined-to-be-infamous staircase scene takes the spotlight. In contrast to every other fight which is stylized with hot ‘80s hits, this one takes place in near silence, only the guttural sounds of flesh and bone are featured. This makes the violence more real and visceral and lets Charlize really show us she has more than what it takes to be the next big action star, her eyes wild and animal, constantly assessing the situation and her opponents. She doesn’t just play the game, she’s the game master.
The Star: It would be a tragedy to not mention Lorraine’s epic wardrobe. Every single outfit she wears is on point to a mouth-watering degree and adds to the stunning layout of every shot in which she graces the screen. Charlize is hot right now. We’ve been dating since Mad Max: Fury Road when she blew my mind as Imperator Furiosa, but she’s been kicking ass since 2003’s Monster, really. Her stoic fierceness never teeters into farce and she’s committed to the role both physically and emotionally.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that anytime she’s not beating someone’s brains out or speaking, the film dissolves into a monotone hum akin to listening to any adult in Charlie Brown talk. Outside of her alluring presence is another action movie you’ve seen before. (Spies! They can’t be trusted!) It’s a standard espionage thriller that checks off all the boxes and at times even adds weight to the eyelids. Without the addition of eye-catching neons and pumping ’80s beats, this could be a real slog.
There are some political themes that pique interest, the conflict between East and West Berlin and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall take place at the same time. It’s hard to say if this is used to its full advantage. James McAvoy brings his natural talent and charm but seems to lack chemistry with his costar. No matter, it’s not him that Lorraine is interested in, anyway. She’ll heat up the room with the sizzling Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) in one of the sexiest scenes this summer, for sure. Touchingly, it’s also Delphine who will see Lorraine’s soft side and her smile, a sweet moment of feminine connection.
As all spies learn, getting to close to someone results in pain and disaster, so we’ll watch Lorraine come close to revealing her full self and then pull back every single time. It’s impossible to know who to trust. She knows this; she’s lived this truth for most of her life. In the end it doesn’t really matter–she’ll come out the other side worse for wear but frighteningly and breathtakingly alive.
Overall: One thing’s for certain: Atomic Blonde’s soundtrack is out of this world, especially if you lived through the 1980s or have a penchant for those poppy synth hits. Charlize is a real threat in her role as Lorraine Broughton, a character so compelling I’ll watch whatever movie she appears in next, no matter how thin the script may be.
Featured Image: Focus Features