Atomic Blonde review / Charlize Theron's ice-cold super-spy makes Bond look arthritic
Atomic Blonde review: Charlize Theron's ice-cold super-spy makes Bond look arthritic
Dir: David Leitch. Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones. 15 cert, 115 min
“I take pleasure in the details,” says a startlingly attractive French spy (Sofia Boutella) to Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, remembering the latter’s drink of choice – Stoli on ice – as they rendezvous in a Berlin nightclub. Details are everything in this lusciously appointed retro-noir action romp: it gussies up every element of décor and dances its violent way around the furnishings. When the two women repair to bed, it isn’t shy, either.
Theron, putting on a British accent as an M16 super-spy called Lorraine Broughton, doesn't just like her vodka on the rocks. Her favoured rehab, after long and punishing missions smashing goons to kingdom come, is to climb into a bathtub of ice cubes. With her peroxide locks, flowing white trenchcoat and wholly unimpressed manner, she looks like a walking chip of Arctic glacier, ready to freeze you out with a single expression, or ideally throw you down the stairs.
And she does plenty of all this, when sent to Berlin undercover just before the collapse of the wall in November 1989. A fellow British operative has shown up dead, and there’s a web of intrigue to disentangle with the help of a scuzzy station chief (James McAvoy), who has the deportment and vocab of a louche, Machiavelli-quoting playboy, but certainly knows his way around.
Derived from a comic book called The Coldest City, the movie is unashamed to flaunt having the coldest star of its day, and Theron – high off that defining moment as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road – gives it the full subzero workout. The film flicks back and forth between her Berlin adventures and the scars-apparent debrief, throwing up one delicious moment when we cut to her oblivious London boss (Toby Jones) straight after the Boutella sex scene. “So you made contact with the French operative?” he asks her, none the wiser.
It’s a neat reclaiming of all those cheesy pan-away moments in the James Bond franchise, except it pushes things a lot further, nudity-wise, and none of the men are in on it.
The film is a ridiculously dressy design feast, first and foremost. Director David Leitch has form here – he was one half of the team who gave us Keanu Reeves as a soul-sick assassin in John Wick – and outdoes himself on every imaginable superficial level. The lighting scheme, all blue and pink neons bouncing off hair and glass, is pureNicolas Winding Refn, but consistently dazzling nonetheless.
The soundtrack lays on a preposterous buffet of late-1980s synth-pop masterpieces – Depeche Mode, New Order, Blondie, The Cure – and makes a solid case for them being the peak of all human creative endeavour.
Unless, that is, you count the film's long-take fight choreography, which sets new bars for assaultive, what-will-she-grab-next realism. As she flings each assailant around the beautifully dressed sets, Lorraine starts to make Bourne and Bond look like a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher and the school’s arthritic janitor, respectively.
Even so, the set pieces find time to slow things down, letting both Lorraine and her enemies stumble around breathless at the end of each huffing, puffing marathon of pain. When a harmless minor character we’d forgotten was even there tumbles back into shot looking as pale as a cadaver, the audience-wide release of tension is funny and welcome.
And yet – it’s a major “as yet”, unfortunately – the crazy surfeit of style can only go so far to compensate for the story, which is well-nigh impossible to care about. The movie needs those heavenly beats to get its pulse racing, because there’s not much else under the bonnet: it lacks suspense, stakes, narrative urgency.
McAvoy gives an amusingly squinty, disreputable performance until the point where he needs to develop it more, and much the same goes for Theron, whose exhausting commitment to these action-figure heroics comes at the cost of deeper layers. That Furiosa rage and pain find no substitutes.
There’s a lot the film misses: the palpable melancholy of a Wick, the tortured conscience of a Bourne. It’s content to kick ass – fine – but needs constant soundtrack injections to keep its adrenaline going, and often feels like a whole load of signifiers in search of a soul. You could try and argue it means something about a changing world order, but you’d really be stretching like mad.
Besides, Theron would have no truck with it: she’s decided to play a character so remorselessly cool it’s as if the film itself is banned from getting to know her.