Atomic Blonde: When Your Heart Grows Cold, by David Bax
David Leitch’s killer new action flick Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989, specifically in November and even more specifically in the days just before and after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart) make interesting use of the city in its tumult but they are even more determined to use their setting as a showcase of an entire decade’s worth of kick-ass music. New Order, David Bowie, George Michael, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Public Enemy, Nena, Flock of Seagulls, Til Tuesday, Depeche Mode, The Clash and Queen all show up on the soundtrack and that doesn’t even begin to cover the whole list. Atomic Blonde is a lot of things—spy movie, action movie, meta-political musing—but, above all, it’s cool as hell.
Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British secret agent sent to Berlin after her predecessor is killed while trying to take possession of the usual spy movie MacGuffin, a master list of every agent in the field and their secret identities and personal details. What she’s really there to do, though, as far as the audience is concerned, is to wear long trench coats with shoulder pads paired with dark sunglasses under her severe bangs while kicking the everloving shit out of people and, because it’s Berlin, looking really, really cool while smoking cigarettes.
The Berlin through which Lorraine walks, drives, kills, fucks, drinks and smokes is really two Berlins; Leitch (along with cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who also shot John Wick, which Leitch essentially codirected with Chad Stahelski) embraces the dichotomy. The drably imposing Stalinist architecture of the East and the warm neon nightclub culture of the West are reflected in Atomic Blonde’s alternating brilliant and grayly monochromatic aesthetics. Leitch and Sela also show a knack for snappy framing both understated (a row of counterculture types kneel before a Stasi agent, giving us a bright green mohawk in the foreground) and grandiose (a savage fist fight behind the screen of a movie theater against the backdrop of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker reversed).
For a while, Atomic Blonde threatens to be more sizzle than steak, conning you into not noticing its thin, hoary plot by distracting you with its unrelenting style like someone trying to sneak backstage at a concert by confidently gliding past security with a determined look on their face. But it has surprises.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is epochal. It’s a moment that took decades to happen and then changed lives in an instant, finally allowing wounds to start a healing process that they may not yet have completed even today. Leitch walks a line setting his movie here, flirting with accusations that he’s borrowing the power of the event to goose his potboiler action thriller into something of higher import. Eventually, though, we come to understand that while Atomic Blonde is not about communism or capitalism or freedom or oppression, it is still very much about politics; namely, the politics of chaos.
The Berlin of the movie is a web of bureaucracy that aims to give the impression of order but is really just disarray in a costume. The further Lorraine gets into it, the less it matters who’s an agent of what country or who is meant to be an ally. The only game in town is survival, of both the political and literal varieties. After Theron, the other major lead is James McAvoy as David Percival, another MI6 agent who has lived in Berlin long enough to have “gone native.” Together, Lorraine and David represent competing philosophies of how to navigate chaos. Is it better to fight through it, always remaining true to yourself (if not always to others) like Lorraine? Or is it better to ride the waves and adapt like David? Given that only one of the two has their coiffure immortalized in the title, it’s clear which side the movie comes down on. Still, David makes a good case for his outlook with one of the simplest, best lines in the whole movie, a hearty, “I fucking love Berlin!”
But all that’s not really what you came for, right? This is an action movie, after all, and one of best in recent years. Every punch, kick, bullet, garrote and crunch of bone and metal is realized with perfect grace and brutality, as coherent as it is tactile. Combatants become visibly tired as their raw bouts rage on. Theron grunts and screams with every blow given or received, reminding you that, as impossibly cool as she is, Lorraine is still fighting for her life. Atomic Blonde may be a throwback to the Cold War but let’s hope it’s the future of action cinema.