Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Atomic Blonde – hedonistic espionage thriller set in stylish Cold War Berlin (from 9 August)

I’m a sucker for an espionage film with plenty of stunts and bullets flying. Bourne sets the bar well above Bond, but every now and again something else outside these well-established brands comes along and stands out.

Salt added a certain style and sophistication to the world of a spy on the run, and perhaps stands as cinematic penance for some of Angelina Jolie’s less noteworthy acting. But the new solo directorial debut from David Leitch, part of the team behind John Wick, is my new favourite.

Atomic Blonde tells the tall tale – for it is particularly unbelievable even in the rarefied world of Cold War spy fiction – of an MI6 agent sent to Berlin to question loyalties and root out a list suspected double agents in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It’s a double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.” (Machiavelli, though maybe not!)

With bleached hair and sense of fashion that is straight off the catwalk, Lorraine Broughton (played by Charlize Theron) must have been at a dental appointment on the day spyclass discussed camouflage and merging into the background. Red ‘killer’ heels, off the shoulder jumper dresses, knee length boots, shiny white haute couture trench coat. How it all fitted into her suitcase is mystery. Whether taking an iced bath or fighting off yet more waves of green uniformed cops, throughout the 115 minute film, Theron plays it gritty rather than aloof. For all the coiffeur and glamour, this is an agent who takes as many blows as she gives, and whose cuts and bruises don’t disappear from one scene to the next.

James McAvoy plays the MI6’s number one asset in Berlin. With his Sinéad O'Connor crew cut, David Percival floats across Checkpoint Charlie trading humint for jeans and booze, while cutting deals with his counterparts in rival spy organisations. His wardrobe budget only extended to V-neck jumpers and borrowing the uniforms from the still warm bodies of dead policemen. Percival’s world is disrupted by Broughton’s arrival on his patch, with her independent determination and her own ability to reach out and relate – Bond style – with a local French agent (Sofia Boutella).

The plot unfurls in a series of extended flashbacks as Broughton is debriefed on her return to London by her UK boss (Toby Jones) and a CIA colleague.(John Goodman). The usually comedic duo keep it deadpan throughout. The established film grammar is somewhat broken fifteen minutes from the end when Percival turns to camera and addresses the audience with a short forgettable monologue that serves to multiply audience doubt that he’s not the only bad egg in town.

The depressed colour palette is washed out with blocks of red standing out against the sea of white and grey. Slide projectors are made to feel chic. Sophistication is added to fighting scenes played out in silhouette. In the heat of the moment, sometimes the camera is pushed out of the way, or gets splatted with blood. With pumping music and a man escaping in his vest in the first scene, this is the intersection of Spooks and Trainspotting.

Amidst the supposedly long take choreographed fight scenes and the blood-splattered walls – they’ll either pick up a craft Oscar or the Turner Prize for the shapely red patterns adorning the flock wallpaper – there is a subtle humour with the audience in my screening bursting out in laughter at some otherwise sinister moments. The final computer terminal screen message that leads into the credits adds another wink at the audience.

It’s a shame that the striking colour of the kickass protagonist’s barnet is used as the film’s title. It somewhat belittles the rest of her character. But as an escapist nonsense thrill ride, Atomic Blonde is racy, pacey, spy romp that puts weaves a lot of style and incredible action into a far-fetched story.

Atomic Blonde opens in Movie House and other local cinemas from 9 August.

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