When you think of Cold War spy movies, then the default location that occurs is Berlin. Berlin, a city that must have been sensory overload of a city during that post 1945 schism between east and west, a city that was lauded by us kids of the 80s for overcoat-era Bowie, alternative Communist chic Army and Navy store fashion and fear of global nuclear fucked-dom.
The closest I ever got to that decadent and yet austere city was a flight into Frankfurt en-route to an Austrian ski trip. In hindsight I would trade that miserable snow-fest for a week of wide-eyed city gawping.
Atomic Blonde hurls the viewer into the anarchy that was Berlin Station in the closing days of the sexy and bullet-ridden Berlin. Charlize Theron is the West’s agent – sent to bring back the classic McGuffin item – a watch containing vital intelligence information. It’s the standard espionage trope, one trodden by the greats like Le Carré. This is no Bridge of Spies, however – more a brutal and drug-fuelled descent in a chaos of paranoia and narcissism.
Opening with a semi-enigma resolution we find a battered, bruised and bloodied agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) in debrief with her section head (the always mildly disturbing Toby Jones) and the unwanted yank-iphant in the room, Kurtzfeld (John Goodman, who is here in full-on Barton Fink mode). From the start of the debriefing it is clear that Berlin has been a shit-storm. That shit-storm is James McAvoy’s, head of station David Percival. It is obvious to all concerned that his approach to his job is to go right up the river and head in to high speed Kurtz mode.
Atomic Blonde is violent. It drapes this violence over a soundtrack of mechanical pop. There is some New Order in there and a brutal use of the Eurovision classic 99 Red Balloons. Theron is front and centre in much of the on-screen violence, which is extremely well choreographed, paced and shot – something that helps to make up for a relatively simple plot shape.
There are the obligatory twists and turns, defeats grabbed from the jaws of victory and other expected tropes but Atomic Blonde is a fun and focussed thriller. There is even the spy film cliché of a pointless bedroom scene – perhaps a step that echoes the audience of the source material – the graphic novel The Coldest City (Oni Press.)It made the reviewer wish that he had seen Berlin, and almost lament the evening he spent sat on a brown couch in a Northern town watching Trabants flood into the West of the city as hands reached over broken concrete.
Should you go and watch? I think that there are worse options out there. If you are in your 40s, then it may pull on some nostalgic emotions. A solid 8/10.