By Evie Sun
The past few years have given rise to quite a few strong, empowering and inspiring women onscreen in films such as “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and “Wonder Woman” and in television shows such as “Jessica Jones.” In an era of celebrated male action figures, the female hero is hard to come by, but not for long: Meet Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI6 agent and resident badass who is skilled in the art of ruthless combat.
Directed by David Leitch (of “John Wick” fame), and based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City,” the spy action-thriller flick Atomic Blonde is set in 1989 Berlin at the end of the Cold War. The plot revolves around Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a MI6 agent who was sent to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent. She is ordered to work with Berlin bureau chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to retrieve a list of double agents before it lands in the hands of the enemy.
The film dives deep into the creeping paranoia that plagued both the East and the West during the Cold War. Titles such as “East Berlin,” “West Berlin” and “London, 10 days later” keep audiences grounded as they watch the plot unravel while keeping in mind the collapse of the Berlin Wall as the historical backdrop. During the few quieter moments in the film, viewers can hear the drone of the television in Broughton’s hotel room, which occasionally announces the progress of the Wall, highlighting the tension that permeated the era. As such, “Atomic Blonde” is deeply rooted in its historical context, and as a result, the plot is a bit more involved than that of an average action flick. While the historical attributes don’t detract from the film overall, it may do viewers some good to briefly catch up on basic Cold War facts before walking into the theater.
The film opens with a debriefing between Broughton and her handlers (Toby Jones and John Goodman) as they interrogate her about her attempt to recover the list. The film alternates between the present debriefing and Broughton’s past undercover mission in Berlin, allowing viewers to juxtapose the events as they really occurred in comparison to Lorraine’s side of the story that she relays to her handlers. The debriefing is presented as dull and dry, which adds extra excitement to the colorful and thrilling events of the past. As a historical easter egg, if audience members listen closely enough, they’ll notice that the soundtrack includes music of the era, with upbeat 80’s tracks from artists such as David Bowie, Nena, Falco, The Clash and Depeche Mode. These tracks add excitement to the fast-paced action scenes and bring audiences back to the rock-heavy hits of the Cold War.
Despite its strong ties to the historical backdrop, the storyline itself lacks substance. Tangled and convoluted, the plot is an intense ping pong match between characters with unknown loyalties and deep undercover survival missions. The film starts off at a reasonable pace; however, the mission to retrieve the list is quickly bogged down by the frequent elaborate combat scenes and blurred loyalties among the main characters. The complex plot detracts from the film at times — it is exhausting to follow the secrets and lies that the spies have built themselves on. Each character’s secret agenda keeps the audience guessing until the literal last minutes of the movie, where the story ends with — surprise — one last thrilling combat scene.
Although Broughton’s impressive martial arts skills shine through the muddled plot, it was mildly disappointing that the narrative structure took a backseat to spotlight the elaborate action sequences. If both elements had been weaved together more effectively, the film had the potential to form an extremely compelling story. Nevertheless, Charlize Theron’s impressive performance is a definite redeeming factor, as the carefully choreographed action sequences clearly hold more weight than the actual plot line. She keeps audience members on the edge of their seats as she wholeheartedly embraces the fierce, kickass character of Lorraine Broughton. Clad in studded combat boots and dangerous stilettos, a long overcoat, sunglasses, and black gloves, the spy is dressed to kill. Female action stars are rarely portrayed beating up their male counterparts, and Broughton breaks both mental and physical barriers in that respect, displaying the grit and backbone of a true heroine.
The combat scenes, although impressively executed, are excessively violent at times for a spy film, as quick camera movements follow each gunshot and knife stab and the bloody aftermath of the numerous fights. With gun, knife, and sharp heels in tow, she is relentless in combat — she leaves a trail of blood, shattered glass and wounded men in her wake, and she refuses to step down until every enemy is taken down. The audience watches in both horror and awe as she violently stabs a KGB spy with her shiny red stiletto heel and as she takes on several men at once with only her gloved hands and found weapons in a much-talked about stairwell scene. Still, Broughton is not all hardcore killer — she also exudes an vastly enigmatic persona. Her dry, witty and sarcastic dialogue is a humorously stark contrast to the crude dialogue of her fellow operative, Percival, who is more often than not wildly hungover in his apartment.
One night, Broughton encounters French spy Delphine (Sofia Boutella), and she finds herself in a relationship with the French operative. When she opens her feelings to the French spy, Broughton allows viewers to witness another, more vulnerable, side to her character. In an era where LGBTQ representation in the media is still a topic clouded with stigma, it is important that such a topic is reflected on screen. Unlike in other films with LGBTQ characters, Broughton’s relationship with Delphine doesn’t take a front seat in the plot. Instead, their relationship is treated as nothing besides the ordinary, which is an important step in the path of normalizing LGBTQ roles. The undercover spy’s bisexuality is not explicitly explained in the film, as she instead chooses to allow her actions showcase her character. It is rewarding to see such development onscreen, especially because it may redefine the limits of films, especially those not strictly defined as containing an activist lens.
Despite the film’s tenuous plot and messy development, Theron shines in her role as the kickass super-spy. Not only does she continue to shatter the glass ceiling that defines the role of women heroines in film — she also builds up the female psyche with her unapologetic fearlessness and proves that women can bring a new and refreshing aspect to the action hero role.
“Atomic Blonde” premiered on July 28 and is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Contact Evie Sun at eviesun123 ‘at’ gmail.com.