Set in 1989, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Atomic Blonde” revels in the retro, new wave vibe of Berlin as it attempts to weave a complicated tale of spy versus spy at the end of The Cold War.
“Atomic Blonde” is wonderful to look at and its action sequences are charged with power, but it falters when it tries to be crafty. At the heart of the film is a spy movie with a dark message about the world but it does not manage this as well as it does its stunning visuals and its killer action sequences.
Based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City,” the film follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she is sent to Berlin to recover a list from a KGB agent. The list comprises names of various agents and the details of their various missions.
In the wrong hands, the list would be the downfall of the spy network and would reveal all the nation’s dirty deeds. It’s what one character in the movie calls, “An atomic bomb of secrets.” When Lorraine arrives in Berlin to meet with the British agent stationed in Germany (James McAvoy), she immediately meets resistance from the Russians and she suspects that there’s a traitor in her midst.
The movie is highly stylized. The pacing takes it time. The visuals jump between bright neon and cold and gray. New wave songs — both in English and in German — press unto us the setting of this world.
It’s Germany in the late ’80s. Punks and anarchists walk the streets. The Berlin Wall still stands and there is a huge difference between East and West Berlin. There are no smart phones here or hi-tech computers. This is a dangerous world and Lorraine Broughton has only herself to truly rely on.
From the get-go, “Atomic Blonde” tells us that she can trust no one. She is alone in this mission and it’s a complicated one. The film never tries to make clear her movements and what’s going on. She’s clearly a professional and we just try to keep up with her.
But with all the twists and turns of the film, the lies and betrayals that are taking place, it becomes quite difficult to follow. The moments when the film works on the exposition, everything slows down and this is where it falters.
But let’s be honest, we’re here to see Charlize Theron and she delivers a fascinating image of a professional at the top of her game. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton cold and emotionless but we can see her putting the pieces together and in just the right scenes, she let’s us inside her inner world. It’s a delicate performance but ultimately rewarding. And when the action starts, she’s magnificent to watch.
Taking its cues from its setting, the action is slow but very hard-hitting. The camera is unafraid to come in close and joins the fray and every punch and kick is magnified and felt by the proximity of the camera and the volume of the grunts and exhales and sound effects of these strikes.
It’s brutal and realistic and there’s very little camera tricks here. It’s really Charlize Theron beating up people and then getting beaten up in return. The action sequences are absolutely thrilling and is the reason why we came to the theaters.
But there’s more to “Atomic Blonde” than a confusing plot and great action. Despite being set in the ’80s, the movie is also quite political. The depiction of East Berlin is very autocratic, the world around this spy thriller is celebrating the coming fall of the Berlin Wall, but in the streets, spies are killing spies to protect their secrets from coming out. Lives are expendable and cheap here, there is no one you can trust, and lies are a currency that can keep you alive.
Buried underneath is a message that The Cold War may be over, but there’s a secret world still bubbling underneath and there is still no one you can trust. For every victory we celebrate when we take down a wall of a fascist regime, there are still people dying in the darkness protecting and peddling secrets that can change the world.
More than great action, “Atomic Blonde” acts like a double agent to remind us that the world hasn’t changed much since the ’80s. While we’re cheering Lorraine Broughton and hoping she finds the list, we’re also seeing a world that’s not unlike our own or what might return if things don’t change. And without spoiling anything, the ending tells us that nothing really changes.