“Atomic Blonde” drives a stiletto straight into the jugular of every “girl power” spy movie out there, literally and figuratively (watch the trailer and you will see what I mean). Based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston, Sam Hart and Steven Perkins, “Atomic Blonde” is set in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is collapsing.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 operative sent to Berlin to find a watch that contains the names of wanted agents, including a double-dealing mole known as Satchel. All this while supposedly collaborating with the MI6 contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy).
The ethos of “Atomic Blonde” is pure 80s with a “Drive”-esque neon palette and a new wave soundtrack to match, but this doesn’t lead to saccharine bliss (take a scene where a guy stomps someone to death to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”). The soundtrack is also a reminder that the line between new wave and goth is a thin one. Even in the most ebullient of songs, there is a tension, a conflict, a turbulence. Director David Leitch deftly captures the disquieting energy in the air as walls tremble; rebellion is stirring the city awake while Siouxsie Sioux sings about cities in dust. In fact, this is one of the many subtle charms of the film— without being polemical, it is political in the subtlest of ways. A scene where Russian spies are shooting at German and British enemies in a crowd of protesters is a wry commentary on the shadowy workings of the state— in plain view, yet so inscrutable.
“Atomic Blonde” resoundingly disrupts the vapid “girl power” spy genre (yes, there is such a genre— think “Alias” and “La Femme Nikita”). The film is not overtly feminist, but Charlize Theron is every woman who has been called “bitch” by some old-boy type. As she soundly thrashes the archetype, she asks, “Am I still a bitch!?” The patriarchy ends up smashed in more ways than one. Lorraine also has to contend with questions of how well she is performing at her job— sound familiar? Her character, without relying on ham-handed political messages, is nevertheless that of a woman who doesn’t have time to take the numbers of those she has kicked to the curb. The dark humor of beating up men to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure” will not escape you. Similarly tongue-in-cheek is the way Lorraine makes fun of her male superior by saying had she known about an ambush, she would have “worn a different outfit.”
The fighting scenes in “Atomic Blonde” are edge-of-your-seat spectacular. The action avoids unrealistic hyperbole— in fact, it is mostly hand-to-hand combat. Theron, doing most of her own stunts, punches and kicks her way through the film with steely abandon. This is the picture of cool. There’s your girl power.