Charlize Theron is the star and driving force behind this feature for a female spy. As Theron put it, it’s a movie where a girl is doing all the things a guy usually does. The result is a decent action movie that will probably receive mixed reviews. Atomic Blonde is very much a Bond movie, delivered using the plot devices of The Usual Suspects in the skin of a low budget comic book movie like Kick Ass.
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Atomic Blonde is set in November 1989. The backdrop of the story is the last days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this story isn’t about that. Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is an MI6 agent. A fellow agent and former lover, James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by KGB agent, Yuri Bakhtin (Johannes Johannesson). Gasciogne was protecting a watch containing a list of covert agents and all the pertinent information about them, henceforth referred to as “The List”. Lorraine is sent in to retrieve The List on behalf of MI6 and CIA. Her MI6 superiors also task her with secretly uncovering the identity of a MI6 mole known as Satchel and kill him.
The story picks up ten days after the death of Gasciogne. A beaten a bruised Loarraine emerges, naked, from an ice bath. After a very bleak take on a lipstick and load montage Lorraine heads to MI6 to be debriefed about her mission. She’s put in a room with her MI6 superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), with MI6 Chief “C” (James Faulkner) looking on from behind two-way glass. After having her request to have the CIA agent removed denied, Lorraine begins to recount the story of what happened in Berlin over the last 10 days.
Lorraine’s MI6 contact in Berlin was David Percival (James McAvoy). He is described to her as having “gone native”, having become too enthralled with the wild life in Berlin. Later, Lorraine figures out that MI6 also intended for her to evaluate whether or not Percival was still loyal. Percival is protecting a Stasi defector, Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who has information about The List. The other player in the mix is KGB arms dealer Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Moller). Bremovych wants The List and Spyglass for himself.
Before Lorraine ever meets with Percival, she’s picked up by two KGB agents working for Bremovych. She kills the two men as Percival meets up with her. Despite Percival appearing to be a drunken buffoon, Lorraine lets him know early on that she knows he’s sharper and cleverer than he’s letting on. She begins her investigation back at Gasciogne’s apartment where she’s attacked by East German police officers, presumably sent by Percival, who is being very clearly painted as the primary candidate for being Satchel. This inference becomes even stronger when we are shown a scene of Percival ambushing Bakhtin and stealing The List after driving an ice pick through his skull. When Percival inspects the list, we see that he finds the name “Satchel” with the words “double agent” near it.
While Percival’s been stabbing people in the face, Lorraine has been out on the town. She’s actually approached by Bremovych in a bar before being “rescued” from the conversation by Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Lorraine recognizes Delphine because she’s been following her from a distance since she landed in Berlin. It turns out that Delphine is a young French intelligence agent. When, she turns out not to be a threat, they start hooking up, starting a fling that lasts through her time in Berlin. After they become intimate, Delphine starts to try to warn Lorraine about Percival, but Lorraine stops her because she believes they’re being listened to. Delphine knows that Percival has been meeting with the Russians.
The next order of business becomes getting Spyglass across the border. Percival insists that they use his plan, but Lorraine deviates because she no longer trusts him. She successfully hides Spyglass from a KGB assassination attempt, but Percival covertly shoots Spyglass in the gut. The wound isn’t fatal, but Lorraine has to try to move Spyglass while fighting against the KGB assassins that were already after him. After a brutal series of fights, they are able to get into a car and drive off. Just as it looks like they’re safe, they are knocked into a river while still in the car. Lorraine manages to escape, but Spyglass dies when his leg gets trapped in the car.
Percival goes into escape mode. He burns his safe house and ambushes Delphine in her apartment, killing her moments before Lorraine can get there to help. Lorraine is upset by Delphine’s death, but not distraught. As we hear Percival giving a somewhat maniacal monologue, we see these events play out. When Percival concludes by saying, “I f—ing love Berlin”, we see that Lorraine has tracked him down. She lets on that she knows he’s Satchel. Percival responds by saying “so, that’s how you’re going to play it” as she stands over him, with gun in hand. Percival gives are a respectful “well played” before Lorraine shoots him in the head and takes The List. Back in the present, Lorraine provides recordings of Percival, proving that he’s a traitor.
STOP NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT MAJOR SPOILERS!!!
This is where the entire story we’ve been seeing starts to get folded and spun into a whole new story. Lorraine’s presence starts to become much more sinister as we hear Percival’s recordings being played back. Previous scenes start to play back as it’s revealed that Lorraine has been recording Percival and editing the audio together to create a confession. Lorraine has been Satchel all along. MI6 sent her to kill herself, and she managed to use Percival, with his disillusionment of MI6, as a scapegoat.
Three days after the debriefing, Satchel meets up with Bremovych, the man who she’d been secretly working for the whole time. However, there’s another twist. It turns out that Percival’s meeting with Bremovych had been about her, reading The List, Percival had discovered who she really was, neither MI6 agent or KGB mole. Prepared for this eventuality Lorraine, still battered and bruised from her time in Berlin, pulls a gun from an ice bucket and dispatches Bremovych and his men. Before killing Bremovych she drops her British accent for an American one and reveals that she’s been playing him as Satchel the whole time.
Finally, we see her true colors as she walks onto a plane to rendezvous with Kurzfeld, finally revealing that she’s been a CIA agent this entire time.
- Being set in 1980’s Berlin, the movie has a very strong euro-pop soundtrack, pulling in retro songs like “99 Luftballons” and “Der Komissar”. So, if you’re not a fan of late ’80’s early ’90’s euro-pop, you might have a problem with this movie.
- Lorraine actually has several run-ins with the KGB agents in Berlin. In hindsight, it does seem like the agents are confused as to why she is fighting against them.
- One of Bremovych’s henchmen just keeps coming across Lorraine. He just gets more and more beaten up over the course of the movie and actually thinks he’ll get some revenge when Lorraine is revealed. Of course, he ends up dead like the rest of the Russians.
- Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston.
What did I think?
I’ve been back and forth on how I feel about this movie and what I was going to write. In the end, I decided to go with my initial feelings but with one caveat. The caveat is this: I may not have understood what the movie was trying to do with certain scenes.
While I was watching the movie, I felt a little bit bored. There was a lot of action, and a lot of it good action. The movie also does some stylishly interesting things by tying its soundtrack and overlay visuals into the theme of 1989 Berlin. The problem was the story. A lot of it feels like “been there done that” territory. Using the McGuffin of “The List” that will reveal all the secret agents is so overdone that it’s not even worth listing the number of places it’s appeared. By itself, that’s not that big of a deal. Most action movies are built on well traveled premises. The problem was the fact that there doesn’t really feel like there are any stakes or characters that are actually important in the flashbacks.
Because the story is being told through flashbacks, we already know that Lorraine is going to survive the encounter and no one else is really that important to the viewer. Percival is the next most interesting character, but they pretty much beat you over the head with the idea that he’s Satchel, so you’re expecting him to betray Lorraine the entire time anyway, there’s no suspense in that relationship. McAvoy is still great in the role, but it’s almost a waste because the set-up for his character feels like it betrays all of the ambiguity and misdirection that he’s throwing out.
The idea of Delphine is interesting in principle but, in execution, Delphine is basically just a “Bond Girl“. The only really interesting thing about her is that she allows the character of Lorraine to play on that trope while incorporating a lesbian sex scene that actually felt like it was appropriate for the movie. In retrospect, it was actually this relationship that started to make me realize just how similar this movie is to a Bond film, especially the way Delphine ends up dying.
That just leaves the fight scenes to keep you invested in what’s going on. The fight scenes aren’t bad, but they are uneven. In some cases we see slick action and in others it looks more like two drunk people in a bar fight. While there are some moments where the slicker action pays off, I think the movie really shines when they go gritty and brutal. The fight in the hotel as Lorraine is trying to save Spyglass is probably the best example of it. That fight looks absolutely brutal and actually makes you think the amount of damage that you see on Lorraine’s body at the start of the movie is warranted. It’s just too bad that all of the action isn’t like that.
I had all of these thoughts going into the movie’s conclusion. Then, in the last 20 minutes of the movie, everything gets turned on its head. Including my interpretation of what I’d been watching. Once the twist is revealed, all of the blatant projections about Percival’s character become a well crafted misdirect. Delphine becomes an unfortunate spy who was caught up in a game that was much more complex than she could’ve imagined. The awkward fights with the Russians begin to look like they were meant to be awkward because they didn’t understand why their own double agent was fighting against them.
The problem is that, I’m not sure how much of that is intentional and how much of that is me projecting it back onto the movie. More importantly, having all of that happen in the last 20 minutes doesn’t erase the way that I felt for the other hour and a half I was watching the movie. Those feelings cause me to not want to go back and watch the movie again to see if I was missing subtle cues or clues. So, I’m left with a sense that I didn’t think the movie was anything special but that I may be overlooking parts of it.
Again, there’s a lot of good in this movie. I don’t know that there’s enough to make it anything special. The movie that you get between the bi-sexual female lead, 80’s soundtrack, and compounded twist endings will likely split audiences into one of two camps: those that think this is a bad movie and those that think it’s am above average action movie.
Atomic Blonde (2017)
- The movie does a good job tellign a fairly comlex story with some layered spycraft elements going on
- Some of the action scenes have a real captivating grit and authenticity to them
- Definitely a movie made to allow for a female character to fill tradtionally male shoes
- The action is uneven and represents the main character in different lights depending on the scene
- The movie purposefully obfuscates the intentions and backgrounds of the characters, which can either add to the mystery or detract from the story depending on how you view it