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Movie Review: #Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde punches, shoots, and sexualizes its way to one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

Review by Matt Cummings
If the 2017 box office has proven anything - particularly the worst Summer I can remember - it's that audiences are most likely done with Hollywood's formulaic approach. The idea of unending reboots, sequels, and familiar fare appears to be over, as if consumers have suddenly either reached a breaking point or whose standards have somehow matured. Luckily, Atomic Blonde isn't one of those, mixing deep spycraft, great casting, James Bond-like sexuality, and some of the best fight sequences you'll see in American cinema, easily making it one of the best movies you'll see this year.
It’s 1989 Germany, and the Berlin Wall is about to see the end of a sledgehammer, but not all is cause for celebration. An MI-6 agent is dead, and a secret list of the West's deep covert operatives is in the wind. Sent in to secure it is agent Lorraine Braughton (Charlize Theron), who is forced to give up the details of the mission after the fact to her boss (Toby Jones) and CIA attache (John Goodman). But as soon as Lorraine arrives, she’s the target of the KGB and must align herself with the questionable antics of Germany's station chief Percival (James McAvoy). She also must decide the loyalties of a mysterious green spy (Sofia Boutella), while the KGB officer Bremovych (Roland Møller) desires to deliver the list to his superiors. Highly stylish but possessing a deep range of lethal skills, Lorraine must navigate the suddenly treacherous waters of Germany to bring the owner of the list (Eddie Marsan) across the border, just as the entire KGB seems poised to violent deny her. From the moment Blonde fuzzily types its Alien-esque font across the screen, it’s clear that we’re in for more than just a tip-of-the-hat to 80’s German synth. We get a bruising affair, as evidenced by Lorainne's introduction: she's covered in bruises and bathing in ice cubes and preparing for her debriefing. Here she is particularly damaged, as if she's been through a war. What we get is something close to that, as Lorainne defends herself against cops, spies, and even fellow associates. But there are even more layer here, mixing the deep spycraft of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Bourne Identity-style action. For people like Lorianne, spies are disposable, emotional wrecks whose training (and constant drinking) is the only thing keeping them from insanity. That’s nothing new (see the Daniel Craig Bond movies), but it all works on yet another level. There is a brash sexuality at play here, as Lorraine will basically do anything - including sleeping with other women - to get the information she needs, strutting around in thigh-high boots, low-backed dresses, and all sorts of other questionable clothing options. But again, that's not all to Writer Kurt Johnstad’s script. The blistering action and dark glances wouldn't be possible without the assembly of some of the best character actors in the business by Director David Leitch.
Both he and Theron posit a new idea: a female action hero who's cut from the cloth of Bond, possessing the intelligence of a super spy who mixes obvious femininity (those thigh-boots are quite telling) with a nearly impenetrable toughness. Sure, she’s bruises badly here but there’s also the sense in several scenes that she gives it at least as well as she receives it. McAvoy is one of my favorite actors today, because (like Jones) feels completely capable of assuming any role with perfect suavity. For Percival, he’s become a figure off the grid, deeply intertwined in Berlin's seedy underworld, and essentially playing both sides against the middle. McAvoy gifts Percival with an air of steely corruption but who seems very capable of taking out Lorraine and making her look like the villain. Jones, Goodman, and Marsan are all indispensable in their roles. Many times during Blonde, you cannot imagine other actors portraying these characters as well. deftly reminds us that all of Leitch's pieces are in control here, even if the handcuffs are a little too tight. Having seen Atomic Blonde twice - and I'd pay to see it for a third time - I was able to figure out the Act 2 issues I had in my initial viewing. That portion gets a little too deep into the spycraft, making you wonder on what side of Berlin they're in during any given scene. And then there are three endings that - while very very good - still feel like a series of patched-on plugs that turns the tables on us (several times) while potentially setting us up for a sequel. You do feel like Leitch is trying to desperately insert ever curve and blind alley he can before going to the credits. But there’s so much great action and story here by the John Wick co-creator and so many wonderful 80’s songs that it’s hard not to love this sort of eye candy. Say what you want about how it portrays women, but you never feel that Lorraine is a victim.
Unabashed in its sexuality, relishing in its violence, and revelatory in its lead, Atomic Blonde punches you in the face, kicks you in the groin, and straddles over you just to prove a point. Along the way, it hits you with a very believable story about the craziness that must be spycraft, the way lies and deception are part and parcel of the business. It’s one of the most enjoyable movies of the year, and joins a growing list that bucks the trend of tired sequels and unnecessary reboots (see Baby Driver, The Big Sick, etc). It reminds us that movies with unique premises can make money, something that I hope happens with this one. Lorraine makes yet another powerful argument that women in leads can bring the tough while still being fragile and honestly desiring love (Marvel, are you getting that Black Widow movie ready?). We need more women like Lorraine in film, even if she wears her sexuality on on her thigh-booted fashion. There's a threat that those clothing choices and other moves she makes might turn her into something to be idolized, but Leitch never succumbs to that old trope. What we get instead is smart, funny, and spits in the face of its enemy, laughing all the way back to their stylish hotel room and bottles of seemingly unending liquor. Atomic Blonde is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity, and has a runtime of 115 minutes.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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