HEY, peeps! So here we are discussing the awesome that is the movie Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron (among others) in the title role of ass-kicking spy in 1989 Berlin.
I’ve been raving about this movie since I saw the R-rated trailer back in…oh, what was that? February? January? Time flies when you’re fangirling, I suppose. At any rate, I’ve been really intrigued to find out where the screen adaptation took us, and I went and saw it the day after it opened in the U.S.
Let’s do a little background first.
THERE ARE SPOILERS, PEOPLE! SPOILERS IN THIS HERE BLOG! IF YOU PLAN ON SEEING THE MOVIE, DO NOT READ THIS BLOG!
Okay. Moving along…
Atomic Blonde is based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston (illustrated by Sam Hart) titled The Coldest City, the first in a trilogy of spy stories set in Cold War Berlin.
And indeed, Atomic Blonde is set in November, 1989 in mostly East Berlin. For those of us who remember those days, Communism was collapsing and the wall that divided East (Communist) Berlin from West was crumbling literally and metaphorically. Berlin was a powder keg as massive demonstrations washed over the city (both sides). Lots of youth-types were involved in the protests, and I remember seeing coverage on, of all places, MTV, which back in the day had its fingers on the pulse of international youth culture and movements (shout-out to Atomic Blonde for incorporating some of those MTV news clips in the movie).
So that’s a bit of MY background, and I’m sure it’s played into why I really dug this film. I was part of youth activist movements back in the day when I was youth-ish, and I followed the protests in then-East Germany, and I saw lots of people about my age and younger putting themselves on the front lines to bring that wall down, right alongside older people.
The Internet was not available like it is now; in fact, I actually didn’t have an email account until the mid-1990s, so the info I got about the Wall coming down was through news outlets and through a network of penpals I had met through British music and culture mags that catered to young people. In the backs of those mags were bunches of ads from people looking for penpals — literally, people to correspond with around the world via snail mail cuz that’s what we had, dammit.
I had penpals in Canada, the UK, Australia, and Germany, and we exchanged letters, photos, and tapes of music. I was the person in high school and college people came to with questions about European and UK music scenes because I listened to British and European rock and new wave and got bunches of music via cassette that could only be bought via import vinyl in the States. At any rate, I got some info from German penpals regarding what was happening on the ground just before, during, and after the Wall came down, and I vividly remember the music I was listening to during that era.
So that was something I really appreciated about this movie, was the seamless integration of the music of the era (including the remakes of the music of the era) with the plot, setting, and action. It was a visual and audio treat for me, and brought a lot back. For the record, the Wall came down November 9, 1989. That is, East German checkpoints basically opened up to allow the passage of people back and forth without restrictions. There was constant celebrating on and around the Wall for days and even weeks afterward.
Which brings us back to this movie.
In any geopolitical shift like this, various government spy agencies are going to have agents and assets on the ground in the hot spots. Nothing sells secrets and violence like social and political upheaval, after all, so we’ve got KGB, CIA, MI6, and Stasi (East German state security forces) on the ground in Berlin (to name the ones in the movie) jockeying for political capital and leverage along the shadowy shores of espionage, double-crossing, triple-crossing, and shady motivations.
Here’s the restricted trailer (meaning it has lady/lady steaminess, violence, and the F-bomb):
The story goes like this:
MI6 agent James Gasciogne is shot and killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin. Gasciogne has concealed “The List” in his wristwatch — that is, a list of all the names of every active field agent operating in the Soviet Union. Which makes us wonder…why did Gasciogne have this List and what, exactly, was he planning to do with it? Was he on the take? Hmmm. Anyway, Bakhtin takes the watch/The List and announces through certain channels that he’s going to sell it to the highest bidder.
Problematic MI6 agent David Percival is on the ground, embedded in Berlin, and he’s all tangled up in the underground black markets that operated during the Communist era in the city as well as with other operatives from other agencies. Percival (played by James McAvoy), is a smarmy enigma and you’re not sure whether to trust him or not at first. He wants to retrieve The List, but his motivations for doing so are suspect.
Meanwhile, MI6 brings in agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) who has no history in Berlin, to retrieve The List and assassinate a double agent known as “Satchel” who’s been selling secrets to the Soviets.
The brunt of the story is told flashback-style through Broughton’s eyes, and indeed, that is made apparent within about 15 minutes of the movie’s beginning, that this story is going to be primarily based on Broughton’s story about what went down in Berlin. She tells the story in a debriefing conducted by MI6 exec Eric Gray and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman in a great turn as the abrasive Kurzfeld).
Broughton’s story reveals a clusterfuck of monumental proportions. She was made almost immediately, she says, by Russian operatives, so she suspects that a mole revealed that she was being dispatched to Berlin. So she was not only trying to recover The List, but also find the mysterious Satchel AND figure out who tipped off the Russians. She was told to find Percival, who could provide intelligence and help her in her mission, but she has a dim view of him, and it’s clear MI6 also feels he’s problematic, but she has to use whatever resources she can, and Percival is one of them.
Through her story, though, we see that she and Percival also played a cat-and-mouse game, and that Percival may have set her up to take a huge fall/die, though even as they snark-spar with each other, they’re also trying to extract information from each other. Broughton figures Percival is on the take from somebody (Russians? Stasi?) and may want The List for his own profit, so she manages to score her own contact in Berlin, a young guy hooked into the youth movement with contacts who are really good with black marketeering.
Percival, meanwhile, claims that he has a Stasi guy (code name “Spyglass”) who has memorized The List and in exchange for the information it contains, Spyglass seeks escape for himself and his wife and young daughter out of East Berlin. So Percival says that if they can get Spyglass out of East Berlin, they can get him to MI6 and he’ll tell them what’s on the list. And indeed, they will attempt to do this, but as you’ll see, shit goes sideways and when that happens, it’s the entry into the final dizzying third of the film, in which things are SO sideways that you’re practically hardly breathing.
Percival does manage to get the List and he’s going to use it against Broughton, but again, things twist, and…well, I won’t tell you.
Anyway, Broughton thus is attempting to complete her mission while dealing with Percival’s possible shadiness and the fact that Russians and Stasi keep showing up where she is. She ends up hooking up (in ALL senses of the phrase, friends) with French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sophia Boutella). Some enterprising soul has provided 29 seconds of that…NSFW. But here’s a nice photo.
Lasalle had herself been tailing Percival, and she and Broughton ended up forming a connection that was more than just one night. That was one of the weaknesses of this film, I think, was really getting a sense of the depth of that connection. They hooked up more than once, and their interactions seemed to indicate at least surface-level affection, but the relationship was glossed-over and ended up in the dreaded BYG trope (as I will discuss further below).
So all of this sneaking around and evasion along with moments of intense violent fights between Broughton and Stasi and Russian agents is going on while larger political tensions ratchet up in masterful pacing — the tension inherent in Broughton’s mission increases even as unrest increases surrounding the Wall and challenge to the East German political system and, by extension, Communism. I was on the edge of my seat the last third of the movie as events started to unfold at a faster clip and the parallels between Broughton’s personal chaos within the mission and the larger that surrounded her provided a super-cool juxtaposition of personal and political.
Upshot? She obviously got out of East Berlin, because she’s in London telling her story. But there are some serious twists toward the end that I am not going to reveal because SO GOOD, and they make you question other things in the story. There are very subtle hints dropped throughout the film that foreshadow the twists — if you were paying close attention. I’m not going to tell you what those were, either, because they’ll just be massive spoilers for the twists.
So let’s talk pros about this film.
1. Setting. Is there anything that says “SPY SHIT EXTRAORDINAIRE” more than the Cold War? Than Cold War East Berlin? I think not. Even when I was living the damn history of the fall of Communism and the eventual fall of the Wall, the Cold War during my lifetime just screamed “I am one of the best settings ever for gritty noir spy shit. AND IN A FEW YEARS YOU WILL SEE WHY!” Hell, it’s November 1989 in this film. East Berlin is a grim, blank, cold, exoskeleton of stone within which is a somehow thriving culture of goths, rebels, malcontents, and freedom fighters all feeding off black markets while the Stasi tries to suppress them (and in some cases, probably engages with them).
2. Charlize Theron. Holy tour de Force, batfolks. Theron is perfect in the role of Lorraine Broughton. She’s hard-edged, unflappable, quick-thinking, and OMG employs mad skillz fighting off assorted bad guys. But she’s also human, and she literally gets the shit kicked out of her even as she brings these dudes down. The fight scenes are superbly choreographed, and Theron gets as hard as she gives, so she comes out of these with injuries and pain writ large across her features and across her body in welts, bruises, and blood.
Her initial scene in this movie has her soaking in a bathtub full of ice water because she’s literally covered with cuts and bruises. She self-medicates with that, Stoli, and what I’m guessing are painkillers; she has an array of prescription bottles in her London hotel room (flat?).
The director, David Leitch (John Wick and the forthcoming Deadpool 2), realized that Theron was more than capable of super-awesome fight scenes, saying that she could do, like, 20 moves in a row without having to cut, so that’s what he did. He put emphasis on her and her abilities.
Check that out here, in “Fight Like a Girl”:
Theron as Broughton…I don’t think I could have envisioned a better actor for this role. She OWNED it.
And I’ll do a shout-out here to the whole cast. Everybody in this movie was good, and there was some nice chemistry between Theron and Boutella. Good sizzle between them.
3. I mentioned it above, I’ll mention it again. The freaking soundtrack. Ah, the songs of my misspent youth. And because I’m kinda special, I’m including a little playlist for you below from Spotify that includes a few of the songs (HEALTH is not the original artist for “Blue Monday,” but it’s re-made well regardless).
4. Cinematography. Stark, gritty, and it really captured not just the frenetic pace of the fight scenes, but also the internal pacing of the individual motivations of each character. I liked the movie John Wick for the same reasons, which Leitch also directed.
5. The twists and turns of this plot. Some no doubt will find the plot murky and in places not well-developed. I could argue either side of those, because yeah, there were plot points I felt could’ve been teased out better, since you’re following a quick pace of action, it makes it a little harder to pick up on the subtle clues that lead you to the twists toward the end. I had to really stop and think after the movie about what led to the end, and think about what cues I may have missed. I’m going to have to see this one again to pick up on them. Oh, darn. Another afternoon watching Charlize Theron kick ass. Woe is me…
Anyway, I like plots like this, that don’t completely reveal everything right off. I like the Bourne movies for the same reason. Some plot points aren’t completely revealed and you have to instinctively pick up on what the bad guys are doing but it makes some intuitive sense if you don’t get all the info handed to you spelled out on a platter. And it makes you pay more attention to the little details. Leitch is kind of a details director, so you have to pay attention to details.
But I do get why some may come away from this movie wondering WTF just happened.
1. Murky plot could also be a con: What was a pro for me — the murky, seemingly muddled plot in some places worked for me, and I think that’s because of Theron grabbing viewers by the throat and dragging them along with her. Even if you were lost in what was actually happening, her performance was mesmerizing and you just wanted to see what she was going to do next, and it make enough sense because her character did things that made sense for the tension and the mood.
But that might be a con for some viewers who prefer a cut-and-dry approach and logical unspooling of events.
2. BYG Trope. (Bury Your Gays Trope) Okay, that’s a spoiler, but if you watched all the trailers, you will figure out that Boutella’s character — Theron’s hook-up and possibly a little more — does not survive this movie. I’ve already seen a bunch of arguments on social media about whether or not her character’s death is truly a BYG or if it’s just collateral damage because of the violent nature of the espionage biz. I think a case could be made for that, but I’m leaning toward BYG and here’s why:
a. Theron’s Broughton didn’t hook up with anybody else in the movie, though we can presume she hooked up with Gascoigne at some point in the past because of a quick flashback, but in terms of actual “real-time” hook-ups in the movie, the only one she had was with the Lasalle character.
b. Broughton hooked up with her more than once. At least twice, and those hook-ups involved not just sex, but cuddling and pillow talk, which is a bit more than simply hit it n’ go.
c. Broughton was truly upset about Lasalle’s death (murdered at the hands of…well, I won’t reveal that), and after watching her reaction to it, it seemed there was a bit more between them than sex, though that wasn’t developed, which made it seem that the Lasalle character’s hookup with Broughton was…pun intended…for titillation.
d. Lasalle’s character didn’t play a major role in the primary espionage plot (though her character did provide some crucial info postmortem), so there really was no reason to kill her off, since the proof she had about another agent didn’t require that she die to reveal it; in fact, it was found after she was dead and her killer had left. Her character could just have disappeared or we could have seen her leave, but unfortunately, she…
e. was used as the selling point to make Broughton engage in hunting someone down for revenge, and indeed, she even brings up Lasalle’s death to the killer. So Lasalle did mean something to Broughton beyond sex.
I’m not convinced that the Lasalle character needed to be killed to drive Broughton into a revenge killing. Broughton had other reasons to take out Lasalle’s killer, so basically we did get queerbaited a bit, it seems, because her interactions with Lasalle were more than one hook-up and involved some actually sweet moments so we might’ve thought, “oh, they could totally have something in the future; not right now, since shit is cray and they all need to get out of Berlin,” but then…no. No chance for happiness for the lesbian or the bi woman with another woman in this movie.
Anyway. I haven’t finished the graphic novel, so I don’t know if the BYG aspect is from the original source material, which doesn’t excuse it, since BYG is in book form, too, but it certainly explains why it played out that way on the screen if that’s the case. Regardless, seeing yet another queer character die in a movie in 2017 after hooking up with a same-sex partner doesn’t sit well with me, especially since we saw, earlier in the film, Percival in bed with at least two other women (at the same time). Very minor characters, to be sure, and we never see them again which begs the question: why were they there? To make sure people knew at least HE was straight? And kinky? Not that threesomes or foursomes are “kinky.” To some they are, but…anyway. Getting out into the weeds, y’all…lol
Regardless, to this viewer, it felt like the BYG trope was used to drive a revenge motivation, though I don’t think Broughton needed that motivation to go after the killer. See what you think when you watch it.
Overall, it was a well-paced, engrossing film, but it is physically brutal, so if violence is not your thing, this is probably not the film for you.
I like that it’s a dark, gritty, jagged edge of a film that is beautifully acted and includes a powerhouse performance by Theron. I’ll be seeing it again, because I know there are details I missed.
There you go!
Happy Friday, and may The Force be with you.