There’s been complaints since early into the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we need a Black Widow solo film. In essence, she’s a great character, and she needs a chance to stand on her own rather than getting sidelined by the powerhouse men. Atomic Blonde illustrates what wouldn’t quite work in a Black Widow movie. The comparisons between the two stories will be obvious to filmgoers who see John Leitch’s fourth directorial effort: femme fatales, spy themes, and kick-ass fight sequences. The difference is that, under the thumb of Disney, a Black Widow film would undoubtedly be impressive, but also sterile and bloodless. Atomic Blonde provides all the brutal, gory impact of actual physical violence rather than cartoonish super-violence. In other words, it effectively provides an excess of realism that a Marvel film cannot. It’s good, but it ain’t pretty.
Atomic Blonde is a 1980s spy-thriller film, a period piece that most definitely soaks itself in late-80s culture the same way an aging KGB agent might soak himself in vodka. (The overuse of “99 Luftballons” is a bit on the nose, what with the movie being set in Berlin and all.) This may be a little overdone, but what the film does better is to illustrate the Cold War spy system in its death throes: the Berlin Wall is about to crumble, but the East versus West conflict isn’t about to go down without a fight. And so, a defecting communist agent known as “Spyglass” (Eddie Marsan) wants to get from West to East Berlin with a list of names and identities of multiple deep cover agents, and it’s up to British operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to either get him or the list out safely. To do it, she’s got to work with local spy David Percival (James McAvoy), an agent who’s embraced the German underground and turned into less of a British loyalist and more of a power broker.
Based on the original graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde presents a world of spies and espionage where nothing is black-and-white simple. (The film’s heavy use of sepia tones very openly symbolizes this.) The closing days of the Cold War are hardly clear to the spy world, as Broughton dances between allegiances and temptations, duty and desire. Duty calls and danger lurks at every step, but Spyglass’ story is sympathetic, and her guard is let down at the presence of a nearby attractive French spy, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella). But the tension in the film is palpable—time is running out to retrieve Spyglass and his list, and the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the increasing riots and the youth-driven revolution, means that there’s very little chance for Broughton to do something as simple as spend time with a potential lover.
If Atomic Blonde will be remembered for anything, it’s that it’s vicious in its fight sequences in a way that even the most graphic of Tarantino movies is not. If a director like Tarantino is going for “amazingly awesome” in his fight sequences, then Leitch is going for the stone-cold reality of what these fights would actually look like. Sure, Theron and her stunt doubles go through some impressive traditionally-choreographed combat sequences, but they quickly propel beyond the realm of fun. Theron’s character takes several brutal beatings, her opponents are punched and stabbed in various uncomfortable places, and the fights just go on and on in an impressive use of a continuous shot sequence. (Seriously, Atomic Blonde needs to win some awards for Jonathan Sela‘s cinematography alone for the continuous shots.) Broughton is a physical mess in the film’s framing sequences—seeing how she got to that end state is captivating, but not pleasant.
It’s possible that Atomic Blonde will be a sleeper hit for the summer. The schedule is packed with superheroes and giant robots and adorable minions, and much of this may be very good, but it’s also repetitive. Wonder Woman was good and a badly-needed win for DC, but even it is one among many superhero films that we’ve had for two decades now. Atomic Blonde is, at the least, very different from what’s on the schedule this summer. The world certainly seems ripe for 1980s period pieces—the bread-and-butter of the Guardians of the Galaxy films—so this is an opportunity to see something comparatively different and still fun. It’s also a good femme fatale spy movie, again, pulling off things that a conventional Black Widow film just couldn’t. By the film’s end, you’ll at least find yourself wishing this were some kind of Black Widow prequel story. Give Atomic Blonde a go.
Rating: Four and a half vodka shots out of five.