‘Atomic Blonde’ bound to blow up

By Adam Pilskog

“Atomic Blonde” is the most recent film in a growing trend where stuntmen work behind the camera as opposed to in front. This time it’s David Leitch, a longtime (and well-respected) stunt double and fight choreographer.

He shot some scenes in 2014’s “John Wick,” and was given a chance to do his own film here. The big test, however, will be next year’s “Deadpool 2,” which is a very low-risk/high-reward proposition with a modest budget.

Fueled by alcohol, a bad attitude and cigarettes, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 superspy who channels James Bond and Jason Bourne as a well-dressed bare-knuckle brawler. She puts all of the East German thugs on their backs, and looks really good doing it. When she’s done, she swigs her vodka on the rocks and wallows in her regrets. She’s a master of disguise and fighting in heels, and uses everything within arms reach as a weapon.

Charlize clearly studied fight choreography, as several scenes are definitely her and not a double. There isn’t much depth to the character beyond her stoic professionalism, and she clearly works alone, but Theron conveys a very subtle loneliness at times, which is a vulnerable trait you wouldn’t expect with such an uber-confident woman. She fits the role perfectly, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see this character become a franchise figure.

Powered by a steady stream of ‘80s pop, and Cold War-era nostalgia, the film is set in 1989 Berlin, a turbulent and exciting time in history. A British spy is killed in the days leading up to the taking down of the wall, and he loses a valuable list of international agents (sound familiar?) that is hidden in a watch. Broughton is dispatched to work with fellow British agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and find the watch before it gets into the KGB’s clutches.

Percival is the personality of the film, as opposed to Broughton’s calm coolness. He is flamboyant, unorthodox and seemingly on the cusp of losing his focus on his purpose, and every time he’s about to come unhinged, Broughton seems to reel him back in. It’s really a nice chemistry, even if there isn’t a spark.

As they race the clock to find the list, they use assets and leave a trail of battered and bloody bodies, their own included. Joining the team are MI6 handler Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Kurtzfeld (John Goodman) who are used nicely to separate the narrative from the debrief. Sofia Boutella plays Delphine, a vampy French woman who is attracted to Broughton from the moment she sees her. The two of them share a surprisingly steamy scene together, which conjures memories of gratuitous sex and violence in ‘80’s and ‘90’s B-movies. Perhaps this was intentional, to match the setting and mood of the film, or perhaps not, but either way, I’m not complaining.

One thing that people will inevitably talk about is the stairwell fight scene. Let me be clear, it is absolutely stunning. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is the best fight scene since Viggo Mortenson’s Eastern Promises steam room brawl in 2007. It is an eight-minute sequence that appears to be shot in one scene (director Leitch admits there are some hidden cuts, although I couldn’t tell) and it is brutal — shootings, stabbings, tumbling down stairs, and even a strategically placed corkscrew. Theron did the scene herself, and it catapults her to the top of my female-badass list in a single eight-minute swoop. Try to find the cuts while watching, I dare you.

“Atomic Blonde” is more than just a vehicle for gonzo fight scenes. With a $30 million budget, strong reviews and word of mouth, and a story that is actually pretty strong considering the aim, I would expect this to be a surprise hit. There is plenty to criticize, but I was thoroughly entertained, and I can truly appreciate what Theron and Leitch accomplished in this one. The twist at the end might not be surprising, but it is pretty satisfying as well.


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