By this stage of the game describing Charlize Theron’s turn in Atomic Blonde as a female James Bond is a bit of a cliche, but it’s just going to have to do. It’s not all the killing and seducing, mind you – well not only that – but the sheer ruthlessness that she approaches the task of tracking down a stolen list of undercover agents* and avenging a deceased former lover along the way. There’s more than a touch of Connery- or even Dalton-era 007 on display here, and while the hyper-kinetic, high impact action sequences assembled by director David Leitch might bring to mind Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is never so sympathetic. She’s a stone killer, an unapologetic cold-hearted bitch with only the faintest sliver of humanity shining through to differentiate her from the other spies, assassins and bagmen swarming the sharply-delineated shadows of Berlin circa 1989.
It’s a bold and brilliant decision – a quick run through the mental Rolodex only brings up Linda Fiorentino’s turn in The Last Seduction as a comparable female protagonist, and even then Fiorentino’s sociopathic seductress wasn’t capable of kicking seven shades out of whatever goons might be unfortunate enough to cross her eyeline. Theron’s ice-eyed secret agent is more than up to the job, and does so at pretty much any given opportunity. Director Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski, pulls out all the stops here, staging a number of utterly brutal, utterly beautiful action setpieces, including one eight minute sequence captured in a single handheld shot that is going to be the key after-viewing talking point for most audiences.
Another hand to hand scrap takes place inside a cinema screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is a nice tip of the hat and an indicator of Atomic Blonde‘s other key trait – for all its brutality and amorality, it’s a rather playful bit of business. It’s a riff, a pose, an echo, filled with alt-pop ’80s hits (New Order, David Bowie, Nene, even Ministry and Siouxsie and the Banshees). The film’s universe of spies and tough guys isn’t meant to reflect our own in any way beyond what’s necessary to anchor suspension of disbelief. Indeed, perhaps it’s not Bond we should looking to as a touchstone, but Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, which exists in a similar hyper-violent, fantastical modern urban milieu.
Yes, there’s a bit of lip service paid to the cost of life in the secret services and the blurred lines and loyalties thereof – mostly personified by James McAvoy’s perverse and duplicitous rogue agent – but that’s all just part of the affectation. At the end of the day, Atomic Blonde is all about doing cool things and looking cool while doing them, whether it’s decimating a squad of unfortunate German cops, bedding Sofia Boutella’s sexy French agent, or running a gauntlet of hired killers in a desperate final dash for the border. Yes, it’s all surface and no substance, but when the surface is this darn pretty, what does it matter?
*yes, that old chestnut.