It’s 1989, just before the Berlin Wall comes down, and as the people of East Germany finally have freedom within reach, British spy Lorraine Broughton finds herself increasingly trapped as her escape routes close.
Atomic Blonde is not so much style over substance as just enough style, but too much substance. The beginning is fabulous, the ending had my head spinning more than Linda Blair in The Exorcist, but in the middle I had absolutely no idea who was chasing who. And I know it’s a story about spies, but still.
A British spy has been killed and the information he was carrying is missing. It seems as if everyone in Berlin is after The List – “an atomic bomb of information” about field agents – which if it fell into the wrong hands could result in many operative deaths. But whose hands are the wrong hands? Lorraine (Charlize Theron) wants the list too, but more than that she wants her life back. Spying is taking its toll and to cope with her workplace injuries she’s falling back on ice baths and alcohol, pills and cigarettes (lots of cigarettes).
Ah, pre-unification Berlin – “you know those movies when the picture begins to slow down and melt and catch fire? Well that’s Berlin” explains Lorraine to her superiors in London afterwards. Spies are always edgy but with the Wall about to come down everyone’s worried that their Cold War exploits might come back to haunt them. And that’s just the good guys.
There’s also a Stasi double agent, codenamed Spyglass (a wonderful Eddie Marsan), who claims to have memorised the whole list (what a way to make yourself unkillable) and needs to defect, and Satchel, another double agent who is betraying MI6 from the inside. So, no pressure then Lorraine.
Meeting Lorraine after she arrives from the UK is David Percival (James McAvoy), who has been heading up East Berlin’s MI6 office for a decade. He’s heavily in with local youth subcultures and is unorthodox in his methods. Unlikable and shifty, Lorraine describes him as “handsome, late 30s, disastrous Sinead O’Connor hair”. She doesn’t trust him and despite or maybe because of his experience he’s always deliberately or accidentally tripping himself up.
Broughton is an ice queen though whether this is what makes her a great spy, or whether she has created this carapace as a form of self-protection since joining MI6, we don’t know. And the frozen stuff features heavily – ice baths, Stoli on the rocks, hypothermia-inducing river water. She never gets emotionally involved until she meets Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a rookie operative, who came looking for excitement but is now terrified by the world she finds herself in.
It’s her relationship with Delphine that finally shows us chinks in Lorraine’s armour, as the older woman throws herself into a fling which starts off purely sexual but becomes something warmer and more tender-hearted. Delphine know she’s managed to break through simply by being herself, or perhaps by being what Lorraine used to be: “when you tell the truth you look different. Your eyes change” she tells Lorraine. You get the feeling Lorraine may not remember Delphine for long but certainly longer than she remembers anyone else.
Looking like Lorraine means hiding in plain sight. Take it from me, it’s not easy blending in with a platinum blonde bob and thigh boots. Luckily 80s layering (lacy bras, vests, off the shoulder tops, corsets) gives her ample places to hide a wire or a weapon. And the endless Berlin demonstrations and protests, which get bigger with each news report, provide more cover.
The spy networks are old school – adverts are placed in newspapers, people follow each other with massive cameras. Do they still do that or is it all burner phones and hacking? There’s clever detailing – a movie Lorraine ends up watching is Tarkovsky’s Stalker, about being guided to a special place to find the answers to one’s desires.
The fight scenes are incredible (and Theron is incredible in them) with anything and everything used as a weapon: guns, elbows, a table top cooker. This violence, which is very graphic (at one point a young man is hit with a skateboard and a gush of blood shoots out and hits the camera), is the opposite of cartoonish.
Injuries hurt. They hold people up and slow them down, and make them look like shit. Lorraine ages ten years in ten days (or possibly ten minutes). In other ways it’s not remotely realistic – as is usual in thrillers, people die because they reach for one last wisecrack instead of their weapon, which to be fair is what I would do.
It’s a sexy film but with an impressively female gaze. The sex scenes between Lorraine and Delphine are elegantly and erotically shot without being exploitative. And frankly it’s lovely to see two women snuggling up in bed together after sex.
With John Wick’s David Leitch directing, there have understandably been comparisons made between the two – and when the action moves indoors from the cold, snowy Berlin streets it’s almost Wickian in its colour scheme, with the 1980s era red and grey and silver hotel rooms.
Outside, Communist Berlin in winter is dreary grey and dirty white, though with the odd flash of colour – red, white and blue Union Jacks are draped over coffins as Broughton stands guard in falling snow. The fashions show how much we’ve doubled back to the ’80s – slogan tees, bodycon, and those beards! How many leather-jacketed 21st century hipsters realise that to the over-40s they look like KGB agents?
Like John Wick music is integral, though here it’s a (mostly) 1980s nostalgia-fest from New Order to Nena. When Lorraine switches on the hifi as she searches her ex-lover’s apartment, Father Figure fills the room.
There’s so much to love about Atomic Blonde but it’s let down by the odd pacing in the middle – it really drags and until near the end is also strangely un-involving. Even before the doubling crossings I only cared about the women, and as the film is shot in flashbacks from Lorraine’s interrogation by her own MI6 bosses we know from the start that she gets back to London.
Having said that, please don’t give up on it, as the last section massively picks up pace. I wouldn’t even worry about worrying what’s happening, as everything becomes clear.
Percival may say: “There’s one question left to ask. Who won and what was the game anyway?” but the pieces of Atomic Blonde finally – FINALLY – fall into place more clearly than the post-80s new world order did.