The discomfiting allure of “Atomic Blonde”

The new film “Atomic Blonde” is a hyperaware, pop-version of the excellent 2011 adaptation of the John le Carré Cold War spy novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”  For history and philosophy enthusiasts, the Cold War, with its dependence on subterfuge and paranoia, is a historical key to understanding the dubiousness of modern political affairs. There is a hollowness to all that is accomplished when all that we’re left holding is a vast amount of nothingness and the forever looming threat of atomic destruction. “Atomic Blonde,” at first, might not be presenting a case of much complexity. Initially, it points to director David Leitch’s more common attributes. In his first solo directing credit, Leitch (most notable recently for his work on the “John Wick” series) proves himself as a master of fight scenes and action sequences. His set-pieces are confident, incisive and decisive but early on he signals to us that the film is not all lurid action fun but something more complex, and off-centre.

Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. (Photo by Jonathan Prime – © Focus Features LLC.)

“Atomic Blonde” turns away from the heat of active combat to the taciturnity of Cold War Berlin. It is 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin War and subterfuge and espionage are the marked elements of Europe in this era. This is the Berlin of stories, a den of seediness, violence and lewdness. It’s a Berlin of fiction presented in hyper-realistic production design. This makes sense, of course, since “Atomic Blonde” is an adaptation of the graphic novel “The Coldest City.” This coldness is, of course, not merely of the thermal sense but of the emotional, psychological and sociological one. For “Atomic Blonde” and its slate of characters represent some of the most emotionally distant and disagreeable characters on screen this year. Theron plays a woman (her name might or might not be Lorraine Broughton) who works for MI6 and is deployed to Berlin to retrieve a bit of microfilm with the names of every active agent in the Soviet Union. Like many spy movies, we will soon learn that the thing being sought out is hardly the only thing that needs to be uncovered.

Hollywood’s summer movie season has been one of carnage. In itself, that’s not surprising; this is the time of the year when the carnage of action movies come to the fore. But the carnage this year has been specific to war in a way that’s made me hyper aware. From “Wonder Woman” to “The Beguiled” to “Dunkirk” to “Atomic Blonde” and onwards, wars have been at the forefront or the periphery of films this year. It is as if the obsession with war represents our own political and cultural malaise in 2017.

“Atomic Blonde” gets a lot of things right that action films of its ilk often don’t. The film’s climax (well, one of them – recent releases share the eye-rolling trait of not knowing when to end) happens in an extended sequence where Lorraine tries to take down a team of assassins, all the while shielding an informant who is nursing a wound. The choreography, production design, sound and directing coalesce to make the moment work. It understands, for example, how exhausting it is to perform hand to hand combat and that even the winner feels exhausted afterward. It remembers tiny details like who has a wound where, and how blood would splatter there. And it bears mentioning that Atomic Blonde’s technical proficiency is marked. Its costumes become set-pieces, its production design becomes plot elements, its sound and music become character beats. There is a dizzying awareness of form that’s notable and impressive, especially when the story threatens to teeter off-course.

And, for me, that threat to upend is never felt more than in the film’s last ten minutes. “Atomic Blonde” and its propulsive verve compel throughout until a final bit that compromises the film that precedes it. It does not spoil the movie per se but hones in on the despicable nature of its characters in a way that I suspect I’ll be thinking about for some time. The film is casual in its depiction of a despicable world with despicable people, but whereas the 110 minutes of the film remains supremely ambivalent on pushing the audience’s hand, the last ten minutes are so unsubtle (complete with the only perfunctory fight scene of the film) it leaves me with a sense of nastiness that makes me uncomfortable. Of course, this discomfort might be an explicit part of its dysfunction. The decision to begin in media res in a story that seems almost unnecessarily convoluted might just be representative of the convolutedness of espionage, where obfuscating things that ought to be straightforward is the only way to excel. But I’m not sure if the film wants us to philosophise its ending to that degree or if my own general interest in Cold War culture is the reason I’ve been trying to attach its denouement to bits of theory since I’ve seen it.

Amidst all this, Theron gives what is easily her second best performance since her work in “Monster.” With the exception of one particular sequence with a wig, Theron excels at adding depth, complexity and angst to a role that needs it to survive. As it is, her Lorraine is the most complete creation in the film, more because of what she does than what she’s given. The character on page is sparse, but complete –Theron makes the character on screen complex and dynamic.  On the opposite end of things, James McAvoy is stuck with the most thinly drawn of the main characters. He offers up credible work behind Theron through sheer commitment.  The film does him a disservice in some ways. In its overly focussed attention to Lorraine “Atomic Blonde” threatens to compromise itself by disregarding its supporting cast. It only has eyes for the blonde at the centre.

“This is probably a good set up for a sequel,” my friend said when it was finished. I hope not. “Atomic Blonde” is a well done film but I don’t want to spend another minute with these characters in their stultifying world. And perhaps that’s the best compliment I can make. Few things in the film feel unearned or cursory. It is relentless in the way it makes its theme seep through to the audience. Its gritty depravity is overt and well distilled. It gets its point across. And that point will haunt you with its dissoluteness.

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