Review: Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron kicking ass. Check. Cold War spy drama. Check. LGBT protagonist. Awesome. This has got to be good, right?

It’s a qualified yes. If you like action, there’s a lot to like in this movie. The fight scenes are really well done and they actually seem realistic – none of the superhero-style thing where everyone is equally matched and the bruises never show. Two things impressed me about the fights: you really see the bruises, and Charlize Theron fights like a girl. And I don’t mean that last as an insult. I mean that whoever choreographed those fights knows that on average a woman is smaller and weaker than a male opponent and that makes a difference to how she fights. This woman fights dirty and will grab anything to hand as a weapon: a fire hose, a standing lamp or a high heeled shoe.

The setting is 1989 Berlin. I’ve never been to Berlin but I was a teenager in 1989 and that colours my memory a lot. The music in the film ain’t what I was listening to and the fashion – at least what Theron is wearing – isn’t quite right either but the cigarettes everywhere I do remember and in a couple of the crowd scenes I saw hair styles and clothing on the extras that take me right back. But more than that there is a kind of retro-style in the cinematography and direction. I don’t quite know how to describe it. As I was watching I kept thinking of Sin City, which I dislike, but in a good way. It has something of that atmosphere, I guess.

Theron’s character, Lorraine, is either gay or bisexual (there’s a hint she may have been involved with one of the male agents killed before the story gets started, and she certainly knows how to use her sexuality to get the advantage over the men around her), but the lesbian relationship is a minor wrinkle in the story. And, actually, I love the way it was handled, it is just there, in the background, totally normal. (Yes, it goes bad, but everything in this film does.) All the major characters are spies and therefore are presumably aware that Lorraine and Delphine are sleeping together. Yet, while men flirt with Lorraine, none of them refers to her sexuality, none try the whole “my awesome dick will convert you” bullshit which totally would have happened in 1989. It’s anachronistic, but this is what LGBTT representation should look like.

The plot is pretty much a gender-swapped Bond. Set in East and West Berlin during the week before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Theron is Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent sent to retrieve “The List” – your basic secret file thing that’s irrelevant except in that it propels the action. Everyone wants “The List”: East German Stasi, Russians, CIA, British and French intelligence. All for different reasons but one thing we learn early on is the list will expose the identity of a double agent known as “satchel”. There are a couple of little twists as we try to figure out Satchell’s identity. And that’s pretty much the plot, but this isn’t a film one watches for the plot.

Watch instead for Theron surrounded by men and effortlessly being more awesome than all of them put together. Watch for unflinchingly brutal action that works. Watch for a lesbian relationship that isn’t a romance but has some depth nonetheless (think Bond, really).

A “popcorn movie” but a good one.