This 2017 American spy thriller film, based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's 2012 graphic novel 'The Coldest City', is directed by David Leitch and stars stars Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Roland Møller and Toby Jones.
It’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is ready to collapse. When an MI6 agent is killed by the KGB, it comes to light a top-secret microfilm has been stolen which contains the names of all active field agents operating in the Soviet Union.
MI6 dispatch a top operative, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), to West Berlin to rendezvous with fellow agent David Percival (McAvoy). The two work to extract defector Spyglass (Marsan) from East to West Berlin, who has committed the list to memory.
But Broughton has another mission, given to her by superior in MI6. The list reveals an MI6 insider who has been leaking information to the enemy. She is to find and kill the double-agent who’s identity is much closer to home than expected as the hunt for the microfilm becomes more dangerous than ever...
This was sold as something out there. Something different and a shake up to the spy genre. It is set in 1989, at the height of capitalism v communism across the Berlin Wall. It features an eclectic, synth-fused soundtrack. It stars Charlize Theron as a spy who both looks good in high heels as much as she uses them as weapons. It looked great fun in the trailers and stylish promos.
But, as I’ve found of recent months, the marketing is the peak of the release.
It is set in a refreshing change of era from modern day. It does have a superb soundtrack with the likes of David Bowie, George Michael, Nena and more. It features Theron looking damn good as she becomes the next best MI6 agent behind James Bond (now there’s a cinematic universe I’d like to see blend). But, bar these elements, the film ultimately falls flat.
‘Atomic Blonde’ (which initially I thought was a biopic about Blondie front-woman Debbie Harry before I saw trailers) soon sets out it’s wares early on. It’s a non-linear piece, with snazzy editing, cool looking titles and a soundtrack to get your toes tapping and nostalgia flowing. It comes across as part ‘Sin City’, part ‘Kingsman’. However, what is also comes across as after the first 30mins is nothing more than Jason Bourne set in the 1980s with a female lead.
The glossy kinks can’t hide the plot we’ve seen a thousand times before which looks as predictable as ever. Predictable to a point, but then when it tries to counter this with a heap of twists and plot-holes, the film becomes sloppy and tired by the finale.
James McAvoy is nothing short of irritating here in a role that seems to provide nothing but letting him act as some...I don’t know what sort of spy he is, but his arrogance, swagger and general screen presence is never entertaining and very one-trick pony. He could do better. Support comes from John Goodman and Eddie Marsan, sparse for the most part but good enough when they are on. So too is Toby Jones and Bill Skarsgård, but they all play cardboard characters we’ve seen and nothing is a surprise or revelation.
Sofia Boutella is pleasant enough however as Deplhine, a young and naive French spy who shares some tender moments with Theron, all shot rather beautifully I have to say and helping add a little more dimension to the otherwise 2D MI6 agent. Theron is a breath of fresh air again in the male-dominated spy world, and she really gets stuck in here with the action and espionage, with brilliant editing to make it hard to indicate when it’s Theron or a stunt double getting blown away or beaten up across Berlin.
She’s not a super-soldier, and she evidently hurts. She’s human, and the framing of her in most sequences is really something, almost as if she’s a graphic novel come to life. The lighting around her reflects her emotions and her state of mind, from sharp blues and reds in dangerous emotive moments, to hazy whites and soft yellows in the more sensual parts. Theron doesn’t shy away from becoming a tough-talking, hard-hitting action star who looks damn good doing it.
But the story of double and triple agents, stolen microfilms, defectors and traitors is pretty standard spy stuff now. This seemed to be a blend of Jason Bourne, James Bond and Ethan Hunt re-packaged. The story limps along with the usual plot points we’ve come to expect, and as one characters says early on - “Don’t trust anyone”. From there, we know it’s one of those standard stories and we know pretty much who NOT to trust from the start.
The 1989 era is depicted well, lots of real news footage of the Berlin Wall protests and the background to the story. So too are our locations, sets and costume design - it’s very 80s but very dark, dangerous and seedy. It’s capitalism v communism at it’s finest, and it looks really good.
One stand-out moment that acts as a nice distraction is a near 10 minute action sequence in a hotel stairwell spilling out into the street and down a busy street in a car which comes across as one long un-cut shot. There ARE cuts there, as many film fans may see, but to general audiences this is one long shot and then some! Even the covert cuts are pretty hard to find, and the idea is brilliant. It’s exciting, well shot, well edited and a real stand out action sequence in the film and also from cinema this year. Great fun...and gruesome too!
Yet these nice factors fail to cover up a very ho-hum story, a handful of uninspiring characters and enough plot-twists and smart-arse revelations that just make the whole thing daft and want to be too clever to make audiences go “Oooooh!” but by the end you’ll just be going “Meh”.
Less atomic, more a small explosion.