Before we get started, here’s my hot-take:
I absolutely agree we need more good female characters in our media. I’m glad to see that scale starting to even out (and it is evening out, for the record). However, there is one thing I do not want to see: a female version of every pre-established male character.
There’s a lot of talk right now calling for a female James Bond, and there are many such examples of gender-swapped characters, but this is the one most relevant to this review. I think this is, at best, a misguided idea. Here’s why: Artificially swapping in a female version of a pre-existing male character is not the answer; having good original female characters is. Gender-swapping does nothing for the state of female characters in media; in fact, it does them a disservice, because the female version will always be unfairly defined by its male counterpart. By gender-swapping, you’re not creating a good female character that will stand on its own, you’re creating a lazy, half-imagined version that will always live in the original’s shadow. We need to create more and better female characters and get them out on their own, let them stand or fall on their own merit.
I would rather have a first Atomic Blonde than a second version of James Bond any day of the week.
Set in Cold-War-era Berlin, a city filled with civil turmoil, smoldering cigarettes, and the obligatory luftballons, Atomic Blonde is the feature film adaptation of the graphic novel “The Coldest City.” MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton gives her account of the events of her mission to Berlin on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a mission where she is tasked with recovering a list of the all the allied covert agents operating in the former Soviet Union, a list that has somehow gone missing. If it sounds complex, that’s because it is. And the complexity unfolds like a labyrinth, revealing a plot that rivals the classics of the spy thriller genre.
The 80’s are back in a big way. Everything from Stranger Things to Thor: Ragnarok wants a piece of the nostalgia. And Atomic Blonde certainly revels in that throwback resurrection. Filled with darkly pulsing synth and classic 80’s hits, the soundtrack serves as the perfect inhabitant of a Berlin in upheaval, a city whose fog-obscured streets hide more secrets than even our femme-fatale hero knows.
Director David Leitch was an uncredited director on the first John Wick, a producer on John Wick 2, and before that he was a Hollywood stuntman for many years. He certainly succeeds in putting that resume on the screen. Atomic Blonde is full of street-level action scenes and bone-shattering fights, scenes where the characters look like they’re, you know, actually fighting, instead of executing some perfectly choreographed dance. These characters are human; they get tired, they get hurt, and that damage is never shied away from. For all its heavily stylized action, the film puts a layer of realism to it that I appreciate.
Charlize Theron only gets better, and she pulls off every facet of her character perfectly. Put her in the same room with James McAvoy, who has proven time and time again what a versatile talent he is, and just watch what happens. As the plot unfolds, we get to see more and more layers of these characters and the webs they are weaving. Atomic Blonde treads the line between startlingly complex and confusingly convoluted very closely, but in my opinion never commits the sin of crossing it. But the audience will need to be paying attention to get the most out of the experience.
A caveat: Atomic Blonde is rated R for a reason. There is no shortage of blood or language, and a fair bit of nudity/sexuality. I have my own views on that stuff, but just let that serve as your warning.
Through it all, amidst the espionage and back-stabbing and the double-crossing inherent in a Cold-War-thriller, the audience might find themselves lost, wondering exactly whose side they should be on. That is a very deliberate choice, and it very much drives home the confusion of that era. Atomic Blonde is a stylish, flashy thriller, but it is also a very capable spy movie that will not only keep your cogs turning trying to figure everything out, but will comment on the state of our society through the lens of the Cold War. And it asks a very important question, a question worth thinking about:
Hero or villain. Ally or enemy. Truth or lie. In this world…what’s the difference?