The action movie genre has produced some notable game-changers in the last 35 years. For me, these are movies that hit the still waters like an obnoxious kid doing a cannonball in your pool. They might not have that massive instant impact, but the effect ripples out across the surface. First Blood, Commando, Die Hard, Predator, Terminator 2, The Matrix, and The Bourne Identity are the movies I’m referring to. The splashes they made had a cumulative effect on the genre. Without these movies, who knows where the action movie genre would be right now? The Bourne Identity took The Matrix’s balletic violence to street level, and simultaneously muscled into the action spy thriller, whose main player up to that point was the Bond franchise. Matt Damon, arguably at his peak in these movies, was a bone-crunching, take no prisoners mano-a-mano combatant, and it forced movies into a new era of fight choreography, where the scenes still have that videogame lack of consequence, but look and sound more natural. The influence is most strongly seen in the post-Bourne Bond franchise, where Daniel Craig’s Bond is a return to the “enforcer” type played by Sean Connery, and in Marvel’s Captain America franchise. The latest movie featuring this kind of hand to hand combat is this year’s Atomic Blonde.
With memories of her last big movie still echoing – Mad Max: Fury Road – Charlize Theron plunges into the action movie genre again with Atomic Blonde, based on the Oni Press graphic novel The Coldest City, by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart, a spy thriller involving double agents, espionage, and a classic genre Maguffin unfolding in the immediate run-up to the fall of The Berlin Wall in 1989. It’s a synopsis not too far from the works of John Le Carre, and the graphic novel is a good read, with spare, economical visuals that feel as cold as the title declares. In the David Leitch-directed cinematic adaptation, much of it has been preserved, and some truly hardcore fight sequences make for some compelling viewing – unfortunately the rest of it pales in comparison.
Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an M15 agent, sent to Berlin to recover a microfilm list of all the agents active in the Soviet Union, and assassinate a double agent, codenamed Satchel, whose identity is currently unknown. Arriving in Berlin she is targeted immediately, before escaping and running into Percival, a deep-cover fellow M15 agent, played here by James McAvoy (Filth, X:Men Apocalypse). From here, Broughton gets embroiled in a side mission when the microfilm cannot be found: to help smuggle across the border the Stasi officer who turned the original microfilm over to the West, and his family. Having memorized the entire list, he’s the next best thing the Russians would have. Along the way, Broughton confronts the French agent who has been following her (played by The Mummy‘s Sofia Botella), which leads to an intimate relationship. The movie story is told within the framing device of Broughton’s interrogation following these events, but isn’t finally resolved until an epilogue which takes place three days later.
I won’t lie – I was primed to like this movie from the get go. I’m a fan of Theron. She’s one of the few actresses out there who crosses genres, and does so successfully, I feel. Having won an Oscar for her portrayal of serial killer Eileen Wournos she could have rested on those laurels and went on to do nothing but drama, but in that post-Oscar career she’s gamely made good movies in a number of genres. Atomic Blonde’s Lorraine Broughton is one of roles that seems ready made for her willingness to get her hands dirty – unfortunately, it’s also a role that deserved a better writer than Kurt Iohnstad.
I’ll get to the action in a minute, but I grew tired of Theron’s Broughton almost immediately. In a departure from the graphic novel, Theron’s Broughton has the composure and natural sexuality of an icy aloof fashion model, in contrast from Sam Hart’s no nonsense, anonymous looking operative, seen here:
It’s not like this was a surprise to me: the trailers play up the main aspect of the movie: Atomic Blonde = Sexy Female Bourne. I knew what I was getting going in, but I was nevertheless disappointed throughout. Mostly, did the movie really need to be Sexy Female Bourne? If it had to be a knockoff of Bourne, couldn’t it have been made without sexing it up? The answer is of course it could, and I think it suffers from choosing the path it did. Wonder Woman presented a female character that seemingly everyone could get behind, despite the movie itself feeling (to me, anyway) like an underwritten piece of fluff. How many women did not see Atomic Blonde because it featured Theron playing a male wank fantasy? In the world of today, this kind of simplistic female action hero feels stale. Why couldn’t Broughton have been a female equivalent of Bourne? Why dress her up in thigh-high boots and miniskirts and turn her into some kind of dominatrix when the story required an MI5 field agent, who is, by nature, supposed to be anonymous enough for deep cover work? Theron’s Broughton talks in a flat, detached montone throughout to show she’s a consummate, unaffected, seen-it-all-before professional, and smokes a lot to show how much she’s an anti-establishment bad girl. I felt the movie lost its class with the choice to make Broughton this kind of character, not helped at all by the brief lesbian sex scene between Theron and Boutella. I suppose it was meant to be titillating, but I found it to be embarrassing. The whole “lipstick lesbian” thing is a schtick these days, and the scene, as filmed by Leitch, is a softcore, 13 year old’s toilet-seat grabfest.
The movie has a nice grim look to it, though, and every time James McAvoy shows up, the movie gets a grimy edge. McAvoy’s performance echoes that of his finest so far, the depraved Scottish cop in Filth, but it is as underwritten as the other characters, with the effect that I felt I was watching a movie that was missing some key scenes. The storyline of an agent looking to retrieve a list of agents is stale cinematically, and I was completely unengaged by it, and found myself just waiting for the next action scene. I got the feeling that’s what the moviemakers were most concerned about anyway.
The good news is that these scenes are terrific, and Theron is completely up to the task of selling them to the audience. As I mentioned in the opening, the evolution of the fight scene has brought movies to the point where the fights need to seem real, and painful, to the audience. In Atomic Blonde, Theron’s involvement in these fights show a character that has skin in the game. She’s not just dishing out superior kicks and punches to incapable flunkies, and these fights have consequences for her. The one fight you see from the trailer takes place early in Act 2, in an apartment. It’s straight from the Bourne playbook, and it’s good … but nothing we’re not used to. However, towards the end of Act 2, there’s an extended stairwell fight scene that is jaw-droppingly well done. It’s much more brutal than anything that comes before, and it’s not hype to say that this particular scene will become a milestone in action movie history. I was completely engaged for all 7 minutes. The action is non-stop, the violence is intimately physical at times, and not a second during this sequence is wasted. Another thing, when you watch this, it seems like one long take. That isn’t the case, but the digital editing techniques are so subtle that the effect of the scene is long lasting and hugely impressive. Then, right after that, the action segues into a car chase that showcase some pretty great camerawork alongside similar digital editing. These ten minutes or so are the best in the movie. After that there are a couple of good scenes – one featuring Botella and McAvoy, and the epilogue – but the real meat of the story is a shank and not a tenderloin.
I’m sure Johnstad and Leitch made the movie they wanted (and probably Theron too, since it was produced by Denver & Delilah Productions, her own prodco), but it was lacking for me.It certainly shows that a woman can be as much of an ass kicker as a man, and look great while doing it, but I’d have preferred those action scenes in a movie that was more Harry’s Game (for you old folks out there) than Jason Bourne.
I’ll end with a couple of pieces of trivia: the movie features It‘s Bill Skarsgard in a small role, showing just what kind of a breakout year he had. And while the graphic novel’s title of The Coldest City refers to the political climate of the era, here’s a fascinating little article about the actual coldest city.
© Andrew Hope, 2017