RECAP: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde (2017): Joe Leitch

The success of 2014’s taut action hit John Wick likely got Atomic Blonde green lit. Joe Leitch was one uncredited half of the directing team behind Wick, and Charlize Theron wanted to work with him.

Armed with punishing martial arts and a relentless soundtrack of ’80s pop hits, Atomic Blonde borrows a few elements from John Wick.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: In 1989, MI-6’s top agent Lorraine Broughton lands in Berlin to recover a list of Soviet agents before it lands in the wrong hands. 

Hero (6/10)

1989. Berlin. The Wall is days from falling and Berlin, East and West, waits for a spark to set off the kindling collecting along the wall for a generation.

Beneath this tension runs a current of spies from the world’s great powers. Americans, French, British, East German, and Russian agents cross and double-cross each other, as they have each day since the months after Hitler shot himself.

As Atomic Blonde opens, one of these agents, a British man named Gasciogne runs through the city to the thumping beat of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Gasciogne nears the Spree River and is hit by a car, flipped onto his back.

From the car steps a hulking KGB agent. The Soviet shoots Gasciogne and takes his watch.

Enter Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). MI-6 calls in one of its best agents to find that watch. On the watch is a list of all Soviet agents working in Western Europe. It’s as big of a get as can be gotten in the spy world. MI-6 asks Lorraine, would you fetch it for us?

Lorraine Broughton, super spy
Lorraine Broughton, super spy

Most of Atomic Blonde is told in retrospect by Lorraine inside an MI-6 interrogation room. She speaks to her immediate superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA chief (John Goodman). Her being recorded and observed and all that, the movie cuts back to her story telling several times.

Back to the beginning. After MI-6 dispatches Lorraine to Berlin, she gets in a car after a driver addresses her by her real name, not the cover name MI-6 gave her. Quickly Lorraine dispatches the two assassins and meets her Berlin contact, David Percival (James McAvoy).

Percival, black market smuggler and British operative.
Percival, black market smuggler and British operative.

French, German, and Soviet agents and contacts flit in and out of Lorraine’s story about as often as she lights a cigarette. How much of it should we believe is the big question.

Lorraine’s personality seeps out as far as her platinum blonde locks. We know she had an affair with Gasciogne, but what she felt for him we don’t know. She reveals nothing to her superiors upon learning of his murder.

We see the effects of the spy business on her body. Her first appearance comes in a bathtub full of ice. As Lorraine slides above the water line, the camera tracks the copious bruises and cuts covering her back, shoulders, left arm, and face. The previous ten days, which Lorraine relates to her superiors, were hellish, though not fatal.

What Berlin left behind on Lorraine's body.
What Berlin left behind on Lorraine’s body.

Buttoned-up and coy though Lorraine is, Theron’s acting power can’t help but seep through. One scene in particular springs to mind, when she considers a French compatriot. After listening to her story, Theron delivers a gaze as cold as that ice bath and as hard as the Berlin Wall. I fear being on the receiving end of that gaze.

Lorraine’s sent to Berlin to recover the list of Soviet agents, but she spends most of her time keeping her head above water (one time literally). Berlin is not her city, so she must rely on Percival to show her around. She always seems one step behind.

Lorraine doesn’t lack in fighting acumen. That’s her trump card in Berlin, and the only skill, it seems, that keeps her alive.

Later in the film, we learn that somewhere in Berlin lurks a double agent named Satchel. MI-6 would like Lorraine to find this double agent and eliminate him or her. Who is Satchel eventually supersedes the list as the most important piece of information.

Villain (6/10)

Determining character roles in Atomic Blonde is nearly impossible. Each character fulfills many roles, none more so than Lorraine, who narrates her own story.

For his role in the story and prominence, I will place Percival here. Keep in mind that most of these characters are villainous in their way.

Percival is an MI-6 agent who has “gone native,” living several years in East Berlin. Funneling goods and people across (beneath) the city’s dividing line, Percival makes a living through the chaos.

Just two cool chicks talkin' spy stuff.
Just two cool chicks talkin’ spy stuff.

Sporting a Sinead O’Connor haircut to fit in, Percival has his hands on the biggest prize yet, a Stasi agent codenamed Spyglass, the man who smuggled the spy list and memorized it.

Percival shows all the typical spy skills. He plays dumb. He wears a cast on his right forearm that’s not really a cast. Instead it conceals whatever he needs it to conceal: listening gear, ice picks, or whatever the day calls for.

Percival is player in the Berlin scene because he enjoys the chaos. He’s a guy who sleeps with two women a night when it suits him, a guy who wears sweaters without undershirts, and sports giant fur coats. He breaks into Lorraine’s hotel room for no reason, and nearly gets killed for it, all so he can suggest Lorraine take a gander at his testicles.

Don't break into a spy's hotel room.
Don’t break into a spy’s hotel room.

The spy thing is all a game to Percival, including the killing. Percival takes silver in Atomic Blonde‘s kill count, icing good and bad characters. He plays the Machiavellian game better than anyone except Lorraine.

Lorraine sets up Percival as the double agent Satchel, but is he? That’s a question the suits at MI-6 want Lorraine to answer.

Action/Effects (8/10)

Forget what you read before. Atomic Blonde has characters and a plot, but those aspects feel tacked on and unnecessary. Watching the movie, I felt that the producers had some kick-ass ass kicking ideas they wanted to try out, and a plot was needed after the fact.

The scene we’ll remember from Atomic Blonde occurs in a wide marble stairway. Nearing the conclusion, Lorraine has transported her “package” to a building away from Stasi sniper fire. Spyglass, her package, was shot earlier in the gut, and he’s bleeding out. They need a way out, but first Lorraine will have to fight through some thugs.

So far the movie has delivered ’80s hit after ’80s hit. That ends for this sequence. No music. Lorraine leaves Spyglass at the bottom of a stairway and rides the elevator up a few floors. She checks her gun before the doors open.

The camera is another character during this fight. We are very conscious of its presence, and whether or not that’s OK is depends on the viewer. The entire fight appears to be one take.

The camera captures two men in the stairwell waiting for Lorraine to show herself. She does, attacking both in the hands and legs, first to disarm them of their handguns and then to set them back.

Ki-yah!
Ki-yah!

One of the guys hits her in the face with a green sack filled with some kind of heavy metal. Lorraine hits the floor and is dazed, but not long enough to die. She gets up and fights off the two guys again. These men are larger than her but can’t take a punch.

One of them throws the bag; Lorraine dodges it. She’s thrown down two flights of the marble stairs, dragging the men with her. Down a third flight they tumble, onto the landing a floor below where she left the elevator.

One guy draws out a knife. Lorraine’s too quick, dodging the blows. She grabs his hand and steals the knife from him. This guy is too close and takes stabs and slashes in the leg and chest; Lorraine lodges the knife in his shoulder.

Guy #1 rejoins the fray, but he’s too bloody and falls down the stairs dead. Knife guy removes the weapon from him and sluggishly swipes at Lorraine, who stabs him four times with the blade. She finds the green bag and its contents, a disassembled rifle. Without time to assemble it, she takes the stock to use as a club.

Down another floor, Lorraine meets Spyglass, who tells her of the two men sneaking through the hall. The camera, swooping in and out of the scene when necessary, pulls back to show Lorraine waiting by the wall and the men, guns drawn, advancing. Lorraine beats the first with the gun club, takes his gun, and shoots the other man dead.

Lorraine and Spyglass run toward a flat and take fire from two more men, including Blondie Key Face, a blonde-haired guy who earlier took a key to his face. Taking a breath and checking ammo, Lorraine tells Spyglass to stop his bleeding and waits for the bad guys to enter.

Lorraine stands by the door and shoots the first guy in the head. Blondie shoots through the door before entering, forcing Lorraine to retreat to a wall. Blondie enters the flat and backs up the same wall as Lorraine, though on different sides. If this shot reminds you of a similar moment in John Wick, that’s likely no accident.

The flat is silent enough that we hear empty rounds tinkle on the hardwood floor. Lorraine is empty, and has to use her handgun as a club. Blondie knocks her down, but Spyglass rises to the occasion and smashes a glass bottle on his head.

Lorraine stands again and fights Blondie. Both are tiring. Lorraine, her back against a wall, uses a hot plate to strike Blondie’s leg, though she absorbs a lamp blow into her back.

The two fighters wheeze now. The camera shows only Lorraine, as the spy crawls across the broken glass covering the floor and finds an ice pick. This weapon is an upgrade from the key blade used earlier in the movie theater.

Blondie neutralizes the ice pick and chokes Lorraine as both slam into a wall. He calls her a bitch, always a dumb idea. Lorraine frees her ice pick hand and jabs into Blondie’s face and eye. Who’s the bitch now?

That’s hardly the end of the scene. Spyglass has taped his torso to staunch the bleeding bullet wound.

Driving away with Spyglass, the package.
Driving away with Spyglass, the package.

Both covered in blood, they leave the building and steal a cop car. Lorraine drives hurriedly, but she’s immediately pursued by another agent. The camera still doesn’t cut. The trailing car shoots the car’s rear glass. Lorraine turns backward and puts two bullets into the driver’s side, causing the trailing car to flip over a parked car. Another car pursues and is smashed by a large truck.

The scene ends when a third car sideswipes Lorraine and sends the car careening into the river. As water fills the car, Lorraine struggles to free her package from the metal on his leg. But she fails. Spyglass dies in front of her, making the list the only list of Soviet agents left.

What a scene that was in the stairs. The lack of music, cutting, and active camera made it a jarring juxtaposition with the rest of the film. The choreography and skill on display made me think that the producers thought up this specific fight/chase scene before anything else.

Does that hurt the film? No, but it makes the scene stand apart from the movie.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Lorraine can count on French aid to help her find the list. Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) is on her first assignment for French intelligence. She’d rather be a poet or a rock star, and knows she’s in over her head.

Nevertheless, Delphine follows spies in Berlin and snaps their photos. She captures a meeting between Percival and the KGB agent who murdered Gasciogne and stole the watch with the list. Hmm, intriguing. This damning evidence Lorraine finds too late, after Percival has murdered the French agent.

Delphine, French agent and wannabe rock star
Delphine, French agent and wannabe rock star

Boutella delivers with a character who gets little screen time. Delphine has the best line. She invites Lorraine to a club and meets her at the bar. “I want to ask you a question,” she says, and then kisses Lorraine, the kiss being the question. Lorraine, by smiling, answers yes.

Delphine and Lorraine have a passionate sex scene. Uh. Wow. That was a great one. Very Bond-like in that a sexy dame shows up, her allegiance is suspect, and the leading spy immediately has sex with her.

Henchmen (1/8)

East Germany’s top Stasi officer is a hulking cinder block called Bremovych. He is tasked with finding Spyglass, his underling who stole the Soviet agent list and wants to defect to the west days before the wall comes down.

In an early scene, Bremovych interrogates a group of punks about Spyglass. He demands one of them dance to a pop song. When the kid can’t break dance well enough, Bremovych rightly beats him pulpy with a skateboard. This is an appropriate reaction to failed breakdancing.

Bremovych does little dirty work; he’s dressed too nicely for that. He sends several of his goons to kill whoever needs killing. Most of these men chase Lorraine across the city, and most of them die by her hand.

The only person in Atomic Blonde to match Lorraine’s fighting skill is another blonde. This guy takes a key to the face and still manages to choke Lorraine. He doesn’t survive, but he’s the only henchman to make a mark fighting her.

Stunts (6/6)

The spectacular stunts on display in the stairway scene belong here. Atomic Blonde pivots on that scene. However, other fights contribute to Lorraine’s battered body that we see emerge from the ice bath as the film begins.

One scene occurs inside Gasciogne’s flat. Lorraine breaks in to investigate. She finds nothing much, until a bunch of local police show up. Lorraine knows immediately that Percival sold her out, as only he knew she was going there.

Still, to avenge herself, Lorraine must flee the flat. She finds rope on the balcony and, turning up George Michael’s “Father Figure,” she hides behind a wall.

Two cops enter the flat with batons. Lorraine wraps several loops around one neck and yanks him backward hard enough to cause his legs to zoom up and kick his partner in the face. Neat trick there.

Wailing on some pigs in the kitchen.
Wailing on some pigs in the kitchen.

The fight moves to the kitchen, where Lorraine relieves the cops of their batons. More cops stream into the flat, now with guns drawn. Lorraine, much of the rope wrapped around her torso, uses some of it to choke a cop and use a human shield.

Lorraine uses the time to grab a pot and smash it into two cops. Another gets a freezer door to the face. Now it’s time to bail. Lorraine wraps the rope around the neck of one cop and runs toward the balcony. As she leaps over the edge, the rope tightens around the cop, and he crashes into the desk, flipping it over, and sliding across the floor as Lorraine plummets two floors, sailing over a lower balcony, and into a door. Lorraine walks down a flight of stairs and beats back the last two cops to flee the scene.

Leitch’s camera likes shooting fight scenes in profile, as in the above photograph. Lorraine is often caught between two fighters, trading blows left and right (on the screen) as fast as she can deliver them.

One moment finds Lorraine battling Blondie Key Face behind a movie screen playing Stalker. The white screen silhouettes the combatants and is, of course, very cool.

The stairway scene is a masterful bit of fight choreography and ambition. Unfortunately, some of the moves are foretold in the stunt actors’ motions. Without film cuts, we can more easily see those moments when villains raise their arms to block oncoming blows.

Climax (1/6)

After Spyglass dies, the only list of Soviet agents remains the one in the watch. Another race to capture it before it falls into the wrong hands. Lorraine has learned that the KGB knew who she was the moment she set foot in Berlin.

But Lorraine’s got scores to settle. Mostly with Percival. Tearing her hotel room apart, she finds a French-made bug in her jacket, recalling that Percival took it from her when she met him in his flat. French made, could be Delphine? No, Lorraine knows better. Percival tried to set her up.

Delphine stops by for a visit and to commiserate. Lorraine won’t have it. “We chose this life,” she says. Lorraine leaves to stop Percival.

Meanwhile, Percival is burning his flat and all its smuggled gear. He’s covering his tracks, sure, but he also knows that, with the wall crumbling before him, East Berlin won’t need a black market. Heck, East Berlin will just be Berlin.fireworks

Fireworks burst across the city. The youths take sledgehammers to the wall. MTV’s Kurt Loder, voice of a generation, speaks about Berlin. Lorraine doesn’t care about any of this. She’s heard the recordings, she’s seen Percival’s fake cast, she knows where he’s gone.

Delphine listens to “Voices Carry” as Percival breaks into her flat and chokes her with a piece of wire. We watch the horror full frontal, as Delphine’s struggle to breathe takes center stage. She doesn’t go without a fight. Delphine straggles to the bed, where she’s left a gun under her pillow, but she can’t reach it. Instead, she jabs a knife into Percival’s back.

Percival struggles for a bit, knocking the knife further into his back. It’s lodged exactly where he can’t reach it. That’s funny. No matter, Percival recovers and kills Delphine in brutal fashion. Not very game like, as he likes to say.

Outside, in the street, Percival finds someone has knifed his car tire. Of course it’s Lorraine. The two engage in a tete-a-tete. “Truth and lies,” Percival says, “we don’t know the difference.” Wrong. “We don’t care,” Lorraine more or less says.

Lorraine reveals to Percival and her handlers in the interrogation room that Percival was Satchel, the double agent. “It is a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver,” Lorraine quotes at Percival. She also grinds her toe into the bullet wound she put in him.

Lorraine reveals (to the audience) her manipulation of recordings to frame Percival as the double agent. “I brought him the only justice he deserved. A bullet.” Also, she doesn’t know where the list is. Happy now, MI-6? Well, they are. They close the case.

MI-6 and CIA together in one smoky room.
If I had to be that close to Toby Jones I’d smoke too.

Case closed. Literally. Except it’s not. Oops. Fast forward three days to Paris. Lorraine wears a new wig in a posh hotel room. Room service pops in with a chilled bottle of bubbly. Also, Bremovych is there to accept the list.

Except, Bremovych knows who Lorraine is. He sends in goons to kill her. They set up a plastic sheet so as to not dirty the carpet and ask her to be a professional and stand on it.

Lorraine bides her time. She expected this, because a gun is hidden in the ice bucket. She draws it out and kills three men in quick succession, one of whom is caught screwing on his pistol’s silencer. Let that be a lesson, always have your tools ready when it’s time to murder a double agent.

Two more men enter the room. Lorraine blasts them in the head, spraying blood all over the nice white walls. Bremovych is the last to enter. He’s shot in the neck. Get this through your “primitive skull,” Lorraine says. “You worked for me.” Not the other way around.

In a hangar far from the Paris hotel, Lorraine, blonde again, boards a private jet with the CIA handler, flipping the real watch in his hand. Not only was Lorraine the real Satchel, she was a bloody Yank all along!

Jokes (0/4)

Spies are dying, man, we ain’t got time for stinking jokes! Get your jokes away from here!

Setting (3/4)

Joe Leitch was half of the directing team on 2014’s John Wick, and the influences seep through the sets of Atomic Blonde. Cool blues and reds color several locations, Lorraine’s hotel room especially. Blue neon lights reflect from her always-on TV.

Most of Berlin seems tinged in blue. At least the outside. In a steamy scene inside a club, Lorraine interrogates Delphine inside a plywood-enclosed room flooded with red light.

Delphine and Lorraine meet in a red club.
Delphine and Lorraine meet in a red club.

If a scene isn’t awash in neon, it’s surrounded by graffiti. East Berliners had little else to occupy their time except tagging every flat surface, it seems.

Can you see these colors through the smoke? Characters light up at every opportunity. Whatever gets you through the day as a two-timing spy or informant.

Is this Tron?
Is this Tron?

Lights, graffiti, smoke: all shaped Atomic Blonde‘s Berlin to the 1989 setting. Oh, and the soundtrack! What a triumph. Similar to Baby Driver, music pulses over nearly every second. Instead of songs personal to the main character, Atomic Blonde plays ’80s anthems such as “Blue Monday,” “99 Luftballons,” “Cities in Dust,” and “Voices Carry.”

The producers ensured that Atomic Blonde could only exist in 1989, and their stylistic choices give the film a panache that help it stand out from the countless Cold War spy thrillers made for five-plus decades. I imagine John le Carré having a heart attack watching this film.

Commentary (0/2)

Lots of crossing and double crossing in Atomic Blonde. That’s the spy world for you. This movie doesn’t have much to add to the spy genre plot-wise, instead throwing a butt load of body blows.

One change in the storytelling asks us to question everything we see on the screen. Lorraine’s Berlin adventure is told by her to her superiors, and we know she lies about much of it. We see moments when Lorraine does some double crossing without revealing such to the men in the smoky London room.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Leaving this one blank.

Others

  • David Hasselhoff gets a mention, his second of summer 2017.
  • Gotta love the scene in which Lorraine stabs a guy in the face with a key and he keeps fighting.

Summary (36/68): 53%

Atomic Blonde is as much a lady-starring version of John Wick as it is its own thing. I hate saying “Movie A is like Movie B but with one difference,” but that’s what we have here. The influences are too clear.

Yet, Theron and company made a unique movie. Spies and plot twists go together well and often, but not with slamming ’80s soundtracks and sets awash in primary colors.

Punishing action scenes set Atomic Blonde apart from many spy movies, and a good star turn from Theron will make it a film to remember.