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Charlize Theron is superb in the leading role. The fight sequences have been rightly lavished with praise for their complexity and brutality. Her Lorraine Broughton is just as uncompromisingly ruthless as her male counterparts, if not more so.
There are several standout sequences of relentless violence which feature the Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) star battering her opponents in a flurry of punches, kicks and gunshots. The stairwell fight, which features extensively in the clip below, is up there with the unforgettable fisticuffs in martial arts epic The Raid (2011).
The problems arise when John Wick (2014) director David Leitch attempts to present Broughton as a real life person on screen. From the first moment we see her battered body, there is an over sexualization and siliceous approach to her depiction. We see her naked, covered in bruises in an ice bath and then stepping out into the streets of London with an accompanying 1980s soundtrack in a glamorous outfit. This in itself may well play into the character, but we get unnecessary shots lingering on her torso, and every time the highly trained secret agent enters the scene we begin with her expensive high heels to highlight that this is a woman, not a spy.
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If the idea behind the film was to create a new sort of spook in the style of Bond or Bourne, then things have got seriously messed up.
Can you imagine 007 being told he would be able to dress up nice before he gets to meet the Queen? In fact, on one famous occasion, Roger Moore’s James Bond had an audience with Her Majesty while in the nude ‘attempting re-entry’ with a fellow spy in outer space!
Broughton is dressed in various outfits that are rarely fit for purpose, but sure look good on screen. Would a secret agent worth her salt ever pack as many costumes as Charlize Theron apparently does for her mission in Berlin? Impracticalities play second fiddle to making our heroine stand out against the dreary backdrop of 1980s Germany.
One suspects the lesbian affair we see in the movie between Theron and Sofia Boutella is purely there to get the target audience even more excited. Make no mistake, this is a film aimed at teenage boys.
The male characters are so poorly drawn, from fussy bureaucrats (Toby Jones and John Goodman) to James McAvoy’s ‘feral’ operative Percival, that you wonder if they are only included to make Theron seem all the more appealing.
The supporting female characters fare even worse. Boutella – a major star in her own right – is reduced to the most simpering companion role once her sex scene is over. The Kingsman (2014) actress deserves better, but has to make do with a number of outfits there to titillate the perceived audience for the film.
Atomic Blonde is the clearest example in recent memory of a film that suffers for lack of a female director. Theron acts her part wonderfully on screen, it’s just that the role is painfully threadbare. We can tell the film is based on a graphic novel (the original is a 2012 offering) from the first few frames of action, with the dialogue functional at best.
We’ve seen such action roles written for women work particularly well in recent memory with The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is as focussed and (in certain scenes) as styled as Theron is here, but always with a point to prove. The big decisions about what to wear to impress the crowds in the Suzanne Collins adaptations are with a view to survival. They are less cynical in that they mock the obsession with fashion over function… it won’t surprise anyone to learn that the author of the graphic novel for Atomic Blonde (titled The Coldest City) is a man.
This atomic blonde is a feminine icon, but an embarrassment to feminism everywhere.
Atomic Blonde is on general release now.