Year: 2017
Director(s): David Leitch
Writer(s): Kurt Johnstad, Antony Johnston
Region of Origin: US

Rating: R
Digital, Color, 115 mins

Synopsis: An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents. (Source)

Imagine the best aspects of Bond and Bourne, but somehow even grittier, more aggressive, drenched in neon and turned into a euro disco mixtape. In a nutshell, that’s David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, a film that wears its influences on its sleeve but plays loose and relentless, knowing full well its greatest strengths. While it lacks the immersive depth of Leitch’s own John Wick, it’s still a heavy-hitting two hours of tough-as-nails fun, with a ferocity only matched by its sneering, icy cool star, Charlize Theron. As the film’s slick anti-hero, Theron has zero qualms about shooting first and asking questions later, with the actress bringing a grit unmatched by most of her male counterparts. From the relentless pop tracks that line each scene, to Theron’s nerves of steel, this film is a stylish, fresh entry into the spy genre, one that isn’t afraid to hit hard where most of its counterparts would rather pull its punches.

It’s 1989, Germany. In just days, the Berlin Wall is coming down, David Hasselhoff is in town and the streets are littered with political and social unrest. Set amidst this powder keg just waiting to ignite, is another story, one of double agents, defectors and the woman caught in the middle. Sent in after the death of a colleague, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is tasked with finding a list of double agents and field operatives, one that could end her covert agency’s autonomy if found on the black market. Touching down in Germany, she connects with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), a loose cannon who’s used his position of power in arguably dubious ways. With only instinct to guide her, Broughton tries to unravel a deep conspiracy before its too late.

Much of the film’s excitement comes from its perspective, one that finally puts a woman at the center of a typically male-driven sandbox and sets her loose like a rabid hound. In this arena, Broughton and Theron excel, with Leitch never backing down (physically or emotionally) when it comes to putting his heroine through the ringer. Armed with a fractured narrative, the film is all about its central character and her psyche, a fully-formed killing machine that uses her intellect and wit as much as her physical prowess. As lies pile upon lies and Broughton’s world comes crashing down, we’re treated to a psychological mind game that allows us to feel the mental strain of being caught in an international web of intrigue, navigating power plays from authority figures and back alleys in which shadows hide assassins waiting to kill.

What makes the action so special, is that much of Broughton’s story and mental profile comes from her fights, which are interspersed throughout and hard-hitting. The big takeaway is how Leitch and Theron capitalize on Broughton’s physicality, stringing together long takes in staircases, car chases and more, to illustrate how Broughton can be just as tough as the boys. This leads to sequences that are raw and unhinged, with combatants who keep fighting until they aren’t breathing, and a heroine that levels the playing field by relying on more than brute strength. An rare effect of the film’s grounded fights, are how they show the grueling difficulty of killing a highly trained combatant at a physical peak – an idea that manages to heighten the stakes and helps to punctuate the emotion of a scene. So yeah, as technically advanced as the action is (including a stair sequence that’s bound to be an all timer) it’s also there to add weight and depth to Leitch’s moody, technicolor story.

Though the action will keep people talking, Theron is the film’s real anchor, with a role that she was undoubtedly born to tackle. Theron is on her own level here, giving us a character who is fully formed without needing a backstory, someone we understand due to primal instinct and armed with an unwavering sense of stoicism. Again, Theron lets her character’s actions do all the talking, embodying outer strength with a mystique that doesn’t give away too much. As her opposite, James McAvoy is just as complex, coming off as a slacker agent before revealing a more troubled and terrifying outlook. McAvoy is all charm, even if he’s shifty and hard to read. As a French agent who allies with Broughton, Sofia Boutella makes the most of a minor role. The thread throughout each performance is ambiguity. All of these characters by nature are adaptive, thrown into unpredictable circumstances and coming out the other end in ways that always surprise.

The final and perhaps the most potent question that Atomic Blonde makes viewers wonder is why it took so long for us to get a character like this. It’s clear after watching that women can anchor the genre in more convincing and complex ways, and it would be shame to not go deeper into this world, especially with Theron and Leitch at the helm. Even more, this is a film that sidesteps Hollywood’s narrative safety net, a palette cleanser that allows its characters to live outside of the archetypes of good and bad, giving us something darker and more brutal, yet sobering at the same time. This can’t and won’t be something for a general audience, but it has its place, and its time is now.