Atomic Blonde

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From the look of the trailer it seemed as though Atomic Blonde was going to be a female fronted, Cold War set version of John Wick. In fact David Leitch, the co-director of that very film left the sequel to make this movie so it seemed sure that what we were going to get was another string of highly choreographed fight scenes tagged together by a revenge plot that somehow managed to be both simple and overly complicated at the same time, only this time it was going to be with Charlize Theron rather than Keanu Reeves. That was a tantalising enough prospect but this is not really what Atomic Blonde is at all and actually it is better for it. 

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Atomic Blonde has a totally different atmosphere to John Wick and is more restrained. There are only really two standout fight scenes (one of which is genuinely exceptional for reasons I’ll get into in later) and around these battles you get a quite slow paced, old fashioned spy thriller. You shouldn’t go in expecting another Bridge of Spies, Manchurian Candidate or Torn Curtain but the historical context lends Atomic Blonde a nice style, even if this works largely because it reminds you of better films.

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The plot centres around Lorraine Broughton, a MI6 agent sent to Berlin days before the wall came down to retrieve a stolen microfilm and weed out a double agent. It’s not a groundbreaking plot but the familiarity of proceedings is not a problem for the reasons previously stated and the gender of the protagonist gives it a different spin. I know we’ve seen this sort of thing before too, with Angelina Jolie’s Salt and Gina Carano’s Haywire, but it’s still rare enough to make it interesting and notable.

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I’m not sure to what extent Atomic Blonde works as a feminist film though. Broughton is certainly a strong character and there is an element of realism to her in that she beats her male assailants with intelligence, strategy and heavy objects rather than too good to be true Kung fu skills. She is tough and she is one of the best at what she does but she is also undeniably fetishised, appealing to the male gaze in a way that this Summer’s Wonder Woman film consciously didn’t. She is totally naked throughout her whole first scene for goodness sake and there is a fairly racy sex sequence that features a significant amount of female nudity and no male nudity whatsoever. It’s all a lot more Charlie’s Angels than it is Buffy. Jane Goldman, the screenwriter of Kick Ass, recently said in an interview that due to the conventions of modern society the only way of not sexualising that movie’s female superhero was to make her eleven years old. There is no doubt truth in this inevitably but believe me, Atomic Blonde is doing nothing to challenge those conventions.

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Interestingly, even though the film is written and directed by a man, it is a woman that is the driving force behind it. Charlize Theron herself first optioned the comicbook it is based on it is her that has produced the movie. Knowing this I am prepared to accept that there is some reach for empowerment and equality in the shots of her silhouetted nipples but you need to know this for this to come to mind. You certainly don’t get it from watching the film.

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Theron is great here, even if you do get to see too much of her too often. Sorry Scarlett Johansson but you’ve lost your newly obtained crown as the queen of action cinema already. Theron is 42 as well which sadly is about the time most women in Hollywood are moving past these types of roles not making them their own so this is trying to blow some winds of change. Of the two great beat-em-up moments the first involves Theron smacking some cops around with a rope that has handily been left lying around the apartment she is searching. It ends with her jumping of a window holding one end of said rope while the other is tied to a recently grounded bad guy who comes around just in time to notice he is being dragged across the floor and smacked into a balcony rail. You’ll have seen this stunt if you’ve watched the trailer, or indeed if you’ve seen the opening of Tomorrow Never Dies. The second fight is truly spectacular though. It isn’t slickly choreographed (although it is clearly meticulously choreographed) but it runs on an on taking in slightly different locations and making you feel every punch and kick in a way that so few action films do. Crucially the combatants are clearly getting hurt as well, which you nearly never see. By the end they can barely find the balance to stand let alone perform one last victorious roundhouse kick. As a refreshing depiction of the obvious reality of fighting it is right up there with John Wick actually having to repeatedly reload his gun.

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You have to be in the right mood for Atomic Blonde for sure. Atomic Blonde isn’t always original but it has its rewards if you don’t ask too much of it and if you are prepared to accept the inconsistencies in the gender politics. Charlize Theron is well supported by Sofia Boutella giving it her all and James McAvoy, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and John Goodman doing their bits and paying the mortgage but it is Theron’s film and it is one she can be proud enough of.

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