One of the best reviews for a new film can be found in the immediate reaction to seeing it for the first time. When I saw “Atomic Blonde” at AMC Theater in Times Square, I knew my review had to be some sort of rave because that’s exactly what I was doing as soon the credits rolled.
My friend and I went into the film mostly excited to see Charlize Theron kick ass and play what was supposed to be openly-bisexual character. I, personally, was prepared for what they call “queer-baiting,” where a character is only queer in so far as they make googly eyes at someone of the same sex for slightly longer than is platonically acceptable. I was fully prepared for heterosexual sex scenes, however, because a bad ass heroin can’t be too independent of men, right?
I was, in effect, prepared for a predictable action film with an over-sexualized female lead who might possibly wink at another woman before falling in bed, and possibly in love, with the male lead.
Not only did the film have me guessing and engaged the entire time, breaking my stereotype of the predictable action film, it even had a canon lesbian sex scene; and one that was not badly done for a male director and presumably straight actresses. It also had a complexly human female lead and was so well-made overall that calling it merely an “action film” is an oversimplification.
Based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City,” the film is set in Berlin during the cold war just as the Berlin wall is about to fall. Interspersed throughout the film are 80s news and radio clips discussing the politics and protests leading to the dismantling of the wall that divided East from West. Though perhaps inadvertent, the film definitely gives historical context to our own political climate.
Charlize Theron plays a spy sent to Berlin to recover a secret list of international spies etched on microfilm and hidden in a wristwatch. When her character is told to “trust no one” she takes it to heart –– and audience members should, too. Without spoiling anything, I’ll give you a glimpse of the journey this film took me on. There is, of course, a suspected double agent; in my notes, scribbled almost incoherently in the dark in theater, I went back-and-forth trying to guess the double agent, scratching out one guess to make another, more than ten times, and was still completely jaw-dropped by the end.
When it seems that every film that could possibly be made has been made, for his film found ways to surprise and rivet from beginning to end.
There is something delicious about a film where you can tell the filmmakers love film and love that they get the opportunity to make film. In “Atomic Blonde,” that love flows through every nook, cranny, and millisecond of screen-time.
Set mostly in punk era, underground Berlin, the aesthetic was perfectly 80s without feeling like a caricature of the decade. It was visually graphic, honoring its roots, without coming off as cheesy or cartoonish. Spray-painted messages narrator time and place as well as the opening credits. Scenes were framed uniquely but not distractingly, with smooth camera movements creating a feel of constant motion without detracting or disorienting.
That the filmmakers had fun is evident by the subtle sense of humor throughout the filming, beyond scripted dialogue. Whereas “Get Out” split its time between laugh-out-loud humor and jump-and-hide horror, “Atomic Blonde” provided an easy, generally visual comic relief that was often just enough for the audience to catch its breath in time for the next edge-of-death sequence. At one point, Theron attempts to hide in a movie theater which is playing a film called “Stalker” as she is being stalked from all sides by enemies spies; it was a secondary and momentary amusement just before another massive fight scene (and one of the film’s most darkly humorous moments: no spoilers).
Director David Leitch, making his solo directorial debut, also has an evident appreciation for Quentin Tarantino; whether that appreciation is conscious or unconscious, it incorporates some of Tarantino’s best visual choices without cloning his distinct style in any obvious way. What I love about Tarantino films is what I loved about this one: you can tell it’s a lover of movies getting to make a movie.
Both Leitch and Tarantino find the poetry, however morbid and disturbing, in the way that the human body can be mutilated and destroyed. For example, in a moment of lovely theatricality, the KGB leader (played menancingly by Roland Muller) playfully picks up a skateboard as he interrogates a group of teen punks. These are literal punks, mind you, with sharp, magenta mohawks to prove it. Like Chekhov’s gun on the wall, we know immediately that the skateboard will inevitablybbecome a weapon; but the moment that it does also turns into a poetic tribute to the physics of blood splatter. It also incorporates a subtle metatheatricality that characterizes this film. With the first smack, blood is expectorated directly into the camera lens; it felt almost as if I were suddenly inside a 3-D movie screening.
Leitch breaks the theatrical fourth wall several other times, twice with the male lead, Theron’s counterpart James McAvoy, whp addresses the camera directly; though he turns out to actually be addressing another character positioned directly behind the camera. It’s a fourth wall tease and not an actual break and it is an interesting choice for a character that is neither the protagonist nor a stand-in for the audience in the journey of the film. It seems to be another example of how much fun the filmmakers had on this project. It also serves as a reminder that nothing is what it seems, no matter how comfortable you think you are with the film’s plot; the second time it occurs this theory is backed up by the content of McAvoy’s monologue. He essentially asks the audience if they know what’s going on in this “game” and who we think has won: “To win you have to actually know which side you’re on,” he says. And, in a foreshadowing of the surprise ending, he adds: “the world is run on secrets.”
My favorite “relief moment,” as I’ll call them, comes when John Goodman, playing a CIA director with the subtle and serious acuity we’ve come to expect from generally comedic actors turned dramatic (think Robin Williams and Jim Carey). He asks Theron if she needs a break after she has to re-counted a particularly harrowing set of event which have all been shown in graphic and gory flashback. He’s asking the audience, as well. Leitch’s directing obliges the rhetorical request by giving Theron a cigarette to inhale, Goodman a sandwich to snack on, and James Faulkner (stoic, frustrated head of the MI6) a cup of tea to blow on and sip. These understated moments of humor and humanity, moments to breathe, reveal filmmakers who consider the reality of the characters on screen as well as the experience of the audience, and win this film a “brilliant” superlative in my book.
Sofia Bouella plays her role as newbie French spy and Theron’s love interest with pouting sincerity and intrigue. It is disappointing, however, that the only other primary female role is relegated to a love interest part, not to mention the tired trope of a queer woman meeting a not-so-happy ending. The film also barely passes the infamous Bechdel test, with Theron’s character surrounded by or discussing men in almost every scene. It also severely lacks a racial diversity in a way that is inexcusable in this age and political climate.
My one other feminist critique incolves, unsurprisingly, wardrobe choices. Though Theron is not overly-sexualized in push-ups and skin-tights, she is frequently seen on the spy clock in heels. The only way this is forgivable is because stilettos in particular double as fearsome weaponry. Ultimately, however, it makes no sense that a person who needs to be able to run, jump, climb walls, swing from balconies, and fight off about a dozen burly superspies at once would wear anything slip on or with more than 1-inch heel.
Beyond that, Theron stays true to her reputation as a stunning woman willing to grunge things up for the realism in her films. The first shot of her is impossible to sexualize even though she is emerging naked from an ice bath, because the scene is determined to show the roadmap of injuries across every centimeter of her body. Instead of a sex object her body is here a testament to the grueling dangers she has faced and the tremendous resilience of her character.
Overall, I immediately wanted to see the film again, could not stop talking about it with the friend I saw it with, and have been talking about it frequently ever since. There is passion and joy in the filmmaking and performances which makes it an enjoyable and exciting watch even if you are averse to gore and violence. Where it could’ve been politically more active and responsible, it has definitely accomplished what many have failed to do: creating a complex and human female heroin, who kicks ass without being a psychopath, and who doesn’t have to have sex with a man to accommodate for her autonomy and power.
The titular pun, of course, reduces Theron to her appearance; but, the film, ultimately does not. And, to use a pun myself, the film is so explosive in every way that its flaws are easily forgiven.
“Atomic Blonde” is set for national release July 28th!