REVIEW: Atomic Blonde
After James Bond and Jason Bourne, the bar has been raised high for espionage films that mingle international intrigue with edge-of-the-seat action. Many have tried and failed to reach the upper echelon of the genre and none have featured a female lead. Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron, is pretty close and if she returns for a sequel, just might find a place in the pantheon.
The summer film was based on The Coldest City graphic novel from Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and was chosen for development prior to publication by Theron, then looking at properties for her production company. She brought on Kurt Johnstad to adapt the story which was fine given his previous work adapting 300 from comic to screen. He also wrote an Aquaman script losing last year’s bake-off to Will Beall.
Set in the waning days of Cold War Berlin, an MI6 agent is shot, the microfilm he was carrying stolen, and the hunt is on for his killer and the list of field agents in the USSR. Lorraine Broughton is set on the hunt and from there, the pace rarely lessens. We start with the end, seeing a naked, battered and bruised Lorraine soaking in a bathtub full of ice then reporting to her superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and his CIA counterpart Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). During her recounting of the actions, we gain an increasing sense of unease; someone is a mole, endangering the mission. The audience is left wondering who it might be starting with David Percival (James McAvoy), the Berlin station chief who may or may not have gone native.
Complicating her mission is Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a rookie French agent posing as a local, who gets too close to Lorraine. She’s a Bond girl but her affair with Lorraine packs more emotional heart than most similar heterosexual encounters.
That action was hyped during the trailers but what you don’t appreciate until you see the film is how much director David Leitch, pushed the action. He made a name for himself with uncredited work on John Wick and was coaxed away from the sequel to this film and he made Theron work hard and its pays off in some of the freshest fighting sequences captured on film in years.
He nicely integrates mostly familiar 1980s music to the film, helping ground it. Director of Photography Jonathan Sela does a nice job maintaining a gritty, run down look and feel to East Berlin, contrasting it with its Western twin.
There’s a relentlessness to the pace which nicely matches the ticking clock as the Wall crumbles and the microfilm is out to auction. By the end, everything is neatly tied up and I’ll admit to being surprised as to who was the mole.
The film, out now in a variety of formats from Universal Home Entertainment has a fine, not exceptional, high definition transfer with a solid DTS:X Master Audio soundtrack.
The 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray discs contain an assortment of interesting special features starting with Deleted/Extended Scenes (7:23), six sequences, two of which focus on Delphine and would have been nice to have in the main feature. Welcome to Berlin (4:33) is a cursory look at the city along with shooting locations and production design. Blondes Have More Gun (7:01) focuses on Theron with a nice look at the intensive training that went into readying her for the action sequences where she did the vast majority of her own stunts. Spymaster (4:18) lets Leith talk about what drew him to this project. The best feature is Anatomy of a Fight Scene (7:52), focusing on the protracted fight sequence inside an apartment building before spilling into the streets. There some nice picture-in-picture director commentary along with split screen behind the scenes footage.
Finally, there’s Story in Motion, animated storyboards for two scenes: Agent Broughton (2:16) and The Chase (1:38), each offer optional Leitch commentary.
The Audio Commentary: Director David Leitch and Editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir is interesting and informative so if you enjoy the film, you’ll learn plenty from a second pass with this option.