Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

A stunning spy action flick whose real twist isn’t in its double-crossing.

I’ll get my gripe out of the way first, because there are things in Atomic Blonde I really like and want to talk about.

The spy movie trope that bugs me most is when a twist is purely for the audience’s benefit. Spies double-crossing one another is like magicians pulling rabbits out of hats for eachother – it’s an in-universe performance – but as soon as the character has done something performative without an in-universe audience, then who is it for the benefit of misdirecting?

Where “Lorraine enters the bar” becomes a fluid dance sequence of colour and line.

I suspect this happens at least twice in Atomic Blonde, though I haven’t re-watched it to trace the twists because the idea bores me. Either it was done logically and intelligently, which means I’d be wasting my time, or it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, which means both me and the movie were wasting my time. But that’s not the only reason to watch a spy action movie, and probably not even the main one.

And if that main reason is style, then Atomic Blonde should become iconic, or at least come to be regarded as an impressive, valuable contribution to the genre. It’s shot, edited and performed beautifully, and it’s subversive in all the ways it isn’t revolutionary.

Lorraine is treated not as a woman, but as a spy – in conversation and in combat.

Lorraine Charlize Theron could be a male spy, and the film would be almost exactly the same. She’s Bond/Bourne in almost all the requisite ways: cool, stylish, tough, resourceful, sexy, dangerous, dressed to kill – and she even beds the gorgeous femme fatale (Sofia Boutela). But there are also scenes where we see Lorraine’s bruised and battered body – and while I’m not much of a spy movie buff, it doesn’t come to mind as a trope of the genre. It’s interesting both in the way it reveals a vulnerability, and that it never feels feminine. The other characters treat Lorraine not as a woman, but as a spy – both in conversation, and in combat.

The fight sequences are gruelling and breathtaking. While I don’t know how much of it was handled by her stunt double, Charlize Theron is clearly there for a lot of it. Brutal.

Interestingly, the director and stunt co-ordinators treat the character’s physical disadvantage – a woman fighting multiple men – as a creative and strategic challenge, which they respond to by developing choreography by developing her specific fighting style, which involves using her environment, and by redesigning and re-conceiving the action set-pieces to utilise the unique talents of the performer playing that character:

Side-note: in addition to giving away trade secrets, stunt co-ordinator Sam Hargrave’s breakdown also highlights the (refreshing) lack of “shaky-cam”, often used to “hide” the performer’s lack of fighting ability. Action-comedy master Jackie Chan is all about the static camera coverage, as discussed in Every Frame A Painting:

Alternatively, in other scenes Charlize Theron is sublimely balletic – she, together with director David Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela, turn what in the script may have read “Lorraine enters the bar” into a fluid dance sequence of colour and line:

This single take is made up of what could have been half a dozen or more separate, meticulously-composed shots. Video essayist Lewis Criswell discusses this technique, reframing, in his video “Composition in Storytelling”: