My moviegoing companion told me, at the end of Atomic Blonde, that he was expecting an action movie in the James Bond vein, and was surprised by receiving a Cold War spy thriller instead. This is as good a description of the experience as any. Not only is Atomic Blonde a Cold War spy thriller, it may be the last Cold War spy thriller, taking place as it does at the moment of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nothing about this film is a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the Cold War spy thriller as a genre– it is a perfectly conventional example, except, perhaps, that the beautiful, bruised, violent and morally ambiguous hero is a woman. If any of this review ends up below a cut, it will be for the sake of managing screen space, rather than any fear of spoiling the plot. You know the plot of this one, point by point, already.
It’s a weird feeling to reach the point in your life when Hollywood is manufacturing a big budget “period piece” (as opposed to a cheap nostalgiafest) that is set in a period when you were already an adult. I am old, when my young adulthood has become the distant past, an era that requires a vast effort of what passes at a movie studio for historical research to reproduce. And maybe there is some personal nostalgia involved, but they did a pretty good job: clothes, music, furniture, cars, guns, graffiti, hairstyles everything seemed exactlt like 1989 to me, or at least 1989 as I remember it. Even the style of the film recalled the movies of the period, as well as the auteur films of the ’70s and the classy black and white thrillers of the 50s, all centered in the familiar setting of “Cold War Berlin”. In Atomic Blonde, that setting makes a pretty impressive last hurrah. The James McAvoy character even has a speech about it, which manages to linger just on this side of the fourth wall.
McAvoy is good as the British Spy Who Has Gone Native, as are Charlize Theron as the eponymous Blonde, Toby Jones (of the MCU) and James Faulkner as the British Spymasters, favorite character actor Eddie Marsan as the East German Double Agent, and Bill Skarsgard as the Beautiful Young Rebel. Especially notable is Sofia Boutella as the Sexy French Spy. She is a young actor who attracted my attention with charismatic performances in supporting roles in the first Kingsman film and the latest Star Trek outing, and is rapidly rising on my list of performers I like to see. And this movie makes the most interesting use of John Goodman I have seen in a long time.
Otherwise Atomic Blonde is rather attractive combination of violence and style. The violence is very violent, made even more so being what passes in the movies as “realistic”– harsh, bruising and severely lacking showy stunts and flashy gadgets. People get shot and they bleed, they get hit with stuff and go down hard. The style is compounded of this violence, the historical intensity mentioned above, and a vaguely European art house sensibility reflected in camera angles and desaturated colors, barely more than monochrome in some scenes, intended to recall both the film stocks of the period and the black and white styles of postwar models.
In a season of shiny, colorful blockbusters full of stunts and gadgets, it’s nice to see the summertime showiness and flash poured into the style of a film. Atomic Blonde is both very entertaining and one of the more interesting films of the summer.
The Notebook for this flick is fairly random:
- 50 pounds of style in a one pound bag.
- Cameras and motorcycles!
- Of course that scene is set in an East German “Kino”: this whole movie was designed to be seen in an East German “Kino”.
- James McAvoy’s coat is very cool.
- Watch out for “The Car”. (When a character orders his minions to bring out The Car, you definitely expect a certain kind of thing. What you get here is interesting.)