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Atomic Blonde: Charlize Theron drives a beguiling star vehicle

Muddled with folding deception and the perpetuation of stylistic veneer, Atomic Blonde is actualized by Charlize Theron’s physical prowess and psychological obscurity.

After Fate of the Furious wasted her star power, Theron finally received a worthy role as the femme fatale Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde. Written by Kurt Johnstad (300), it’s an adaptation of Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s comic book “The Coldest City”. At the helm was stuntman David Leitch, the co-director of John Wick—together with Chad Stahelski. Blonde was Leitch’s first solo directorial effort after Stahelski had his own success with John Wick Chapter Two earlier this year.

Despite being a movie set under The Iron Curtain in 1989, Blonde leans more on the action side of John Wick than the espionage form of John le Carré’s novels. Theron and Kelly McCormick (from Leitch and Stahelski’s 87Eleven Action Design) served as executive producers to assure the quality. For action scenes, Leitch said no to amateur cutaways and included Theron’s admirable physicality in most of the fights. The lead actress, whose immaculate movements and slender limbs from a former ballet dancer captured the sophisticated pulse of incessant brawls, outshone her co-stars. She channelled her inner Furiosa to imbue this role with audacity, stamina, and a sneering countenance.

Without many shootouts, bruising close-quarter combat receives its deserved attention. The action doesn’t comprise showcases of badassery but instead laudable contests of stamina and deftness. Such a wonder what geographical clarity, stable camerawork, and the boycott of boring one-hit knockouts can accomplish. R-rated aspects aren’t forced on the gore; it’s the reality in this particular time, space, and occupation.

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That long take in the apartment block is melee at its rawest. Featuring a skilled KGB henchman by stuntman Daniel Bernhardt (John Wick), the fight is increasingly brutal and painstakingly staged to emphasize precision. This seven-minute sequence has no background music for viewers to experience the choreographic rhythm—sounds of thumping fists and broken knees and twisted elbows. Though Leitch used tricks (like the whip pan) for seamless transitions between concealed cuts, several shots are over two minutes long before Theron’s Lorraine carries it on to an elaborate car chase. The bloodshed has some comedic painkiller, like when Lorraine fights a henchman through a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (a genius reference to her situation in Berlin) and stabs him with a key. His reply will steal a laugh from you.

Blonde centers on a MacGuffin called The List—a piece of microfilm containing data about all MI6 active agents in the Soviet Union. MI6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) was going to give it to a defected Stasi officer (Eddi Marsan) before being tipped off by a double agent known as Satchel. He is then killed by KGB operative Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson). Ten days later, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), who seems to have a romantic relationship with Gasciogne, is tasked by MI6 to retrieve The List and eliminate the elusive Satchel.

Lorraine is black and blue when we see her rising out of the ice bath; it means she recently came back from the mission. Structure-wise, Leitch uses a debriefing between Lorraine and her senior Eric Gray (Toby Jones)—together with extraneous Chief C (James Faulkner) and CIA representative Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman)—as the framing device to tell the story in flashbacks.  By jumping back to the present, Blonde tries to simplify its complicated story, sometimes affirming essential facts, at least according to Lorraine. Though this narration takes away our concern for her life, Blonde is a star vehicle that aims to bolster its lead actress anyway. Besides, the story doesn’t stop at the interrogation table.

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But it certainly has a start, and viewers follow her statement to Berlin ten days ago. Lorraine, surviving on only Stolichnaya vodka on the rock, is a relentless scrapper with doggedness and a stern attitude to spare. Stomping killer heels or leather strap boots across Berlin, she sports a chic haute couture style. Thanks to costume supervisor Cindy Evans, Lorraine’s 80s-inspired wardrobe vary from Balmain jumpsuits to impeccable coats and high-waisted pants. In the mission briefing, she knows about her contact—Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who has “gone feral”, but the man still has to prove his unreliability. Due to his tiresome time as a sleeper agent, Percival adapts to the environment and becomes a hedonistic party animal, who entertains himself in German punk gatherings. In fact, he has been in Berlin for too long MI6 doesn’t even know for which side—or for any side at all—he is working. McAvoy, delivering testicle jokes or pondering a scheme with his cocky grins, convinced me he is becoming the next Samuel L. Jackson. This eccentric personality, plus McAvoy’s range, could have enhanced the power play, but instead, he and Lorraine don’t cooperate because Gray told her to trust no one.

In comparison with John Wick‘s worldbuilding, Berlin in 1989 doesn’t stand a chance. There is no hierarchy of hitmen, established institution, or economical element coming to play. Blonde also rids itself of any emotional core, which is conveniently apropos in this stone-cold world of dishonesty. The only raising stake is available through TV news about the impending moment Berlin Wall will collapse. Next to that are the nebulous character motivations, which I assume are all the same: capricious selfishness.

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The thing about spy movies with moles is I always start by being suspicious of the main character. Lorraine is not an exception, so the genre itself adds more suspense. However, whether the plot can uplift that basis is the more prominent argument. In the first act, Blonde jumps between two sides of the Berlin Wall, using location titles and the presence of graffiti on the wall to inform us where is where. Lorraine, working alone, doesn’t progress much and mainly waits for Bakhtin to re-surface while getting herself into gratuitous entanglement. Not until halfway into the movie does Lorraine gain valuable intelligence: Satchel’s true identity is in The List. In every sense, this development isn’t impactful enough to up the mind game.

KGB associate Aleksander Bremovych (an underused Roland Møller, Land of Mine) approaches Lorraine before novice French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sophia Boutella) rescues her from his apparent threat for her and boredom for us. Boutella, portraying her first speaking character after the terse Gazelle and Princess Mummy, was smart and delightful. Aside from the traditional Bond girl vibe, Lasalle is a reflection of Lorraine in her rookie days, providing the short-lived yet needed affection and information. Behind the icy hits, Lorraine’s affinity for Lasalle exceeds a presumably two-dimensional personality. Marsan appeared in two scenes as the Stasi officer Spyglass, whose mnemonics is important to Lorraine. His middle-aged geek look lent the character believable bewilderment when treated like another piece on the board. Lorraine also visits a watchmaker (Til Schweiger) and is assisted by the fervent Merkel (Bill Skarsgård, Pennywise in the new IT). Entanglement, I told you.

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Blonde’s soundtrack alone is worth the admission price if you entered the theater expecting a long flashy music video. Leitch and musician Tyler Bates blasted vintage synthpop and electro-rock back-to-back. Mostly, the music adds tasteful flair to scenes—that is if the substance isn’t already visually obvious and music only spells it out in a cool way. Though the tunes are spellbinding, we shouldn’t compare this soundtrack to Baby Driver‘s musical novelty. The visual, like the way Lorraine’s platinum hair is barely covered, is boastful and at times impenitently heavy-handed. In exterior shots, her hair color blends into crisp, lukewarm backgrounds of monotonous strangers while the interior is where Leitch played with nifty, vivid neon colors. As much as I cherish the aesthetics, it distracts viewers from an already complicated storyline. Spy flicks are at their best with minimalism and subtle complexity like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The glamorous Lorraine raises her voice and fists as a woman because she just is, not because she is defined as the opposite of a man. Actualized by Theron’s physical prowess and psychological obscurity, Blonde is as much a hip spy movie as an empowering action romp. Muddled with folding deception and the perpetuation of stylistic veneer, it has ruthless fight scenes to thank. Under Leitch’s direction, violence isn’t just hollow self-assurance; it’s the bold substance to offset enmeshed schemes and ulterior motives.