SXSW Film Review – Atomic Blonde
The trailer for Atomic Blonde released online only two days prior to the world premiere at SXSW. Greeted in the Paramount Theatre by a DJ spinning 80s tunes, it certainly set the tone for the film. Director David Leitch (John Wick) greeted the audience along with Charlize Theron and James McAvoy. Leitch made it clear that the music is a huge part of the film. This conjured up a bit of déjà vu as I had only seen Baby Driver the night before and music is an integral part of that film. Throw in Toby Jones, who appears in both films, and the comparisons stop there, as I experienced Atomic Blonde and enjoyed every second of it.
Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Set in November 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she travels to Berlin to recover the body of fallen agent Gascoine (Sam Hargrave). Gascoine was executed after someone obtained a list of spies from his body. Lorraine is sent by her two bosses, Gray (Toby Jones) and C (James Faulkner), to obtain the body but also to recover the list. She meets up with resident Berlin agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who attempts to show her the ropes in the city as well as assisting with obtaining the list. To complicate things, Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) is resident Berliner who had the list, but has also memorized it, making himself both an asset and a target. The majority of the film is told as Lorraine is recalling her eventful trip to Berlin to both Gray and an American CIA agent (John Goodman) in an investigation of her activities back at the MI6 headquarters.
The passion for this project and the work that went into it is evident. First and foremost is Charlize Theron giving her all for the character and the complexity of stunts required for the various fight scenes. The first one gives just a taste of what is to come. Set to George Michael’s “Father Figure,” Lorraine battles some police or guards as she is discovered in Gascoine’s apartment. Never has a fire hose become so useful in both fighting and using it as an escape method. The scene goes on for several minutes and when you think it has ended, Lorraine has one last move up her sleeve. It is a fight scene for the ages. The other highlight is the fight scene seen in the trailer. It is filmed as a one-take scene with a few flights of stairs. It is both ludicrous and amazing to see at the same time. Theron trained for these fight scenes intensely, admitting she broke a couple of teeth while clenching them during filming. Her dedication to the character and the level of commitment to portraying Lorraine is on the same level as any other dramatic actors. Her work in Mad Max: Fury Road was just a precursor and a taste of what is seen in Atomic Blonde.
To set the tone and mood of the late 1980s, music is woven into almost every scene. Recognizable songs by David Bowie, the aforementioned George Michael, Depeche Mode, and others permeate Atomic Blonde. To add the German setting, some are sung in German, but are still recognizable hits of the 80s. Without these songs and perhaps substituting a score instead, the feel of the film would be entirely different. They give an added excitement and nostalgia to the scenes.
Also, just as important to the film are the costumes of Lorraine. Dressed in black and/or white for the entire film made her look stylish, yet powerful, against her platinum blonde hair. It is an aesthetic that works for the character and contrasts her against Percival or French agent Sandrine (Sofia Boutella).
One aspect of these intense fight scenes that are not always seen in action films is the aftermath. Atomic Blonde highlights the toll taken on Lorraine’s body throughout its story. The characters do not pick up and go on with no observable injury, only to have perfect form in the next fight scene. There is a realism built into this story as we see Lorraine take multiple ice baths and grapple with injuries to her body, bruised and beaten. There are not many action films out there that show a fault or weakness in their main character. It is an appreciated addition that made the film seem closer to reality.
Atomic Blonde has many elements working together to make it a kick-ass female-centered action film. Director David Leitch with his background in stunts and action films, Charlize Theron with her dedication to the story and character, along with screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300), and the soundtrack of the eighties collided to make a film that ended up being a standout film of my SXSW experience. The surprises in the story are just icing on the cake. It’s been too long since a female agent character has ruled the cinema as hard as Lorraine in Atomic Blonde.