By Travis Johnson

If you’ve seen someone get shot, stabbed, blown up, or beaten to within (or beyond) an inch of their life over the past 20 years, there’s a good chance that David Leitch had a hand with it. Recently, the veteran stuntman, fight choreographer, and second unit director settled himself into the director’s chair for the first time, working with long time collaborator Chad Stahelski to bring us the instant action classic, John Wick. Now he’s flying solo, directing Charlize Theron in the Cold War action thriller, Atomic Blonde.

Based on the comic book, The Coldest City, the film sees Theron as ruthless and deadly secret agent Lorraine Broughton, who must fight her way through the dark alleys and chic clubs of Berlin circa 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aided (and frequently hindered) by James McAvoy’s gleefully corrupt local agent, Broughton is a sleek, sinister killing machine tasked with tracking down a stolen dossier full of secret intel that could endanger every undercover operative behind the Iron Curtain.

It was Leitch’s wife, producer Kelly McCormick, who brought the project to him, having acquired the rights to the comic book. “She said, ‘Hey, I have this spy thriller, Charlize is attached, would you be interested in looking at it? I think there’s something you can do with the world.’”

At that stage of the game, the current script draft didn’t much resemble the final film’s sleek, music video-influenced aesthetic, with Leitch calling it “…really a classic sort of noir spy thriller, trenchcoat/fedora sort of thing.” He quickly came to realise that a more fun, stylised approach was possible, drawing on his own knowledge of the city and the pop culture of the day. “I thought I could find a way in where we could find the world of Berlin in ’89 and heighten it. So I took a stab at putting together a presentation of images of ’89 Berlin, focusing on the Wall and the music, the soundtrack, the fashion, and started to aggregate all the cool stuff from the ‘80s. I presented to Charlize and Focus Features my vision for this movie, and it was more of a neon noir pop culture mash-up and not your classic Tinker, Tailor, and everybody responded and said ‘Let’s do this!’”

The result is a propulsive, kinetic and hyper-stylised high-speed run through the Berlin underground, set to a killer soundtrack of ‘80s club bangers from New Order to George Michael and beyond. “I wanted to take the spy genre and just turn it on its head,” Leitch says. “Approach it from a different point of view, and music became a key part of it – the songs were speaking to me as I saw the images and how we wanted to shoot it. I was talking to [cinematographer] Jonathan Sela at length about how I wanted it to be reflective of ‘80s music videos but with a more contemporary style, and we would have the songs that we would have these long takes to. Jonathan is prolific in music videos as a shooter, and we had a lot of fun designing sequences around the music that we picked, and that stuff all got integrated into my draft of the script.”

It feels for all the world like the best EuropaCorp actioner that Luc Besson never made, and Leitch admits that the Gallic visionary, among others, was an influence. “Luc Besson’s The Professional is probably one of my favourite genre movies. There’s movies from the ‘80s like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, there’s influences from Jackie Chan’s choreography, there’s John Woo at the end.

“I mean, if you look what I did with the action, I tried to arc it. So tonally it starts out like a ride of a movie; it’s kind of fun and you’re in a fun, comfortable place, but as things get more dire and the consequences get more real I ratchet the action into something more verite and dark and make it as real as possible, and that’s when you get that stairwell fight.”

Ah yes, the stairwell fight – actually, that should be capitalised. The Stairwell Fight is Atomic Blonde’s action highpoint, an eight minute long savage battle that sees Theron take on a small army of enemy agents in what appears to be a single, uninterrupted shot. It’s a brutal ballet, a singular masterpiece of action choreography that incorporates guns, savage hand to hand combat, and even vehicle stunts as the fight spills out into the streets.

The idea is something that Leitch has been toying with for a while, having been influenced by working with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Blade Runner 2049) on the 2011 dystopian thriller, In Time.

“He’s a god,” Leitch says fondly. “But he can be a little cranky – I love him. And he said something to me that stuck in my head: ‘I just want to stay with the characters. Can you choreograph this so that I can stay with the characters?’ And so I think that was one of the things I was thinking about in that stairwell fight – how do we stay with her on this journey? We’ve built up all this tension – I don’t ever want to cut away. And I want to hang it on Charlize the Academy Award-winning actress and her character’s peril, as opposed to cutting it up with a bunch of stuff that we’ve seen before, car crashes and crap, that you get numb to. And I think that’s why you really feel immersed in it, and she’s acting through this whole thing – there’s a nuanced performance going on. Those were all sort of the ideas that were gelling in my head.”

The sequence took weeks of preparation and rehearsal, with Theron spending two months working with the fight team four days a week, “Then we had to find the location, choreograph it with stunts, which was another couple of weeks, then choreograph it with camera and working with Jonathan to work out how we could light these long shots, how can we pass the camera and keep the camera moving down the stairwell. That was another week of rehearsals just in the practical location.”

Add to that building a car rig too accommodate the stunt driving finale that Leitch compares to “The Children of Men shot” and you’ve got one of the most complicated action sequences ever staged, and that it plays out so smoothly in the finished film is something of a cinematic miracle – one he puts down to the entire crew’s singular vision. “It really involved every department understanding the vision and wanting to commit to it, and you just normally don’t have that. And you normally don’t have the time or will of the crew or the producers to do it. I’m glad we did, because it’s very compelling.”

That may be something of an understatement.


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