The 1980s have been going for at almost 40 years now, and ATOMIC BLONDE proves that even the fall of the Berlin Wall could not stop them. So as the unmistakable beats of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ segues into David Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire),’ we strap in for another Cold War spy flick. This one genre flick that definitely struts to its own rhythm.
On the eve of the 1989 collapse of the Wall, British MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Germany to investigate the recent death of an agent. Forced to work with unorthodox station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), she must also root out double agents via a series of flashy spy moves.
Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay uses a familiar interrogation motif as his narrative frame, as Broughton’s supervisor (Toby Jones) and CIA contact (John Goodman) retrospectively question her about the events of Berlin. Yet director David Leitch (John Wick) uses the edits to his advantage. The connective tissue of the flashback is all that is needed to rapidly bounce Broughton between bedrooms, car chases, and close-quartered fisticuffs.
Wrapped in the spray paint and neon aesthetic of 1989-by-way-of-2017, and the ever-present whiff of smoke and vodka, ATOMIC BLONDE is sex-positive as well as being sexy. This is James Bond without the overt misogynistic tendencies. An ongoing relationship with French spy Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) puts Theron in the driver’s seat, comically playing up the uncomfortable seat-shifting of Jones and Goodman as she continues to recount her tale.
At other times, Leitch pulls few punches in the action stakes. A climactic third act confrontation is an 8-minute stairway/apartment battle that is cleverly composed to give the illusion of a single shot. The action here is brutal and unrelenting, on par with similar approaches in Oldboy or Netflix’s Daredevil, and is the logical contemporary(ish) progression of Theron’s Mad Max: Fury Road persona. In another sequence, Theron fights off bad guys to the tune of ‘Father Figure,’ one of the best uses of George Michael since Keanu.
Retaining the 1980s ‘greed is good’ mentality, the copious Stolichnaya placements are never close to being subtle. So while ATOMIC BLONDE never fully breaks out of the well-trod path of comrades that have come before, it’s a clever spin on the model and plays against conventions for every few turns of playing into them. Here’s hoping that there’s more like this to mine from the Cold War, and that the eventual 1990s equivalent is just as fun.