In Atomic Blonde (2017; dir. David Leitch) deception, secrets, and lies are the foundation of this espionage and action thriller set in Berlin in the late 1980s at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rule here is that no one should be trusted, everyone is a façade in some way, every character is a target, no one tells the truth, and that governments (Britain, France, Germany, the Soviets, and the USA) are complicit in a corrupt global mess. We’ve seen this in numerous espionage films—The Spy Who Came in from the Cold comes to mind, as does Syriana and others. So there’s no moral surprise and shock: this world weariness is not new. But instead of wallowing where other films have wallowed, The Atomic Blonde gives us Charlize Theron as the agent for the British Intelligence Agency. This film seemed to advertise itself as a super hero film, but although Lorraine has no super powers she can fight and wrestle and shoot extraordinarily well. She gives the film its focus. She strains our credulity, but that doesn’t matter. She’s constantly beaten up and bruised and bloodied, but she always leaves everyone she faces dead or maimed. She always manages to get up and persevere. She also develops a relationship with a French agent, Delphine Lasalle, played by Sophia Boutella, so she may be the first lesbian action hero in a major film. However, as soon as Lorraine and Delphine get together, it’s clear the latter is doomed.
There must be a history to Lorraine’s character, but the film doesn’t show it. By revealing virtually nothing about her past, or what has formed her character, the film stirs our curiosity. A sequel is certain.
This film a has a modish-punk style, punctuated with striking visuals, mobs of protesting Berliners, and period music, some of it German and some not. One action sequence takes place in a theater that is showing Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and a large banner with the film’s name hangs in the background. (Since I haven’t seen Stalker, I can’t tell whether this is significant). Endless action scenes make The Atomic Blonde difficult to ignore. So does Theron in her role. The Atomic Blonde seems infected by, or trying to define, a moral and spiritual anomie that marked the end of the twentieth century and that seems even more current today.
How many high-fashion dresses and spiked heels can an espionage agent fit in a single bag?