WASHINGTON, August 27, 2017 – Marquee movie stars don’t necessarily make or break films anymore. Their presence in a film’s cast can certainly enhance a film. But it can detract from it just as much. In other words, in the grand scheme of movie entertainment, having a headline star in any film is only going to move the needle so far in terms of its critical and box office success. There’s no better example of this reality than Charlize Theron and her current tour de force vehicle, “Atomic Blonde.”
Make no mistake: this film was absolutely intended as a star vehicle for Charlize Theron. Based on Anthony Johnson’s graphic novel “Coldest City,” “Atomic Blonde” isn’t the first action film that has been built around Theron’s action movie skill sets. Despite being one of the best-known and well-respected stars of her generation, however, Theron’s action film ventures haven’t always been a success.
But what is it that differentiates a critical and commercial success like “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2016) from a relative dud like “Aeon Flux” (2005)?
“Atomic Blonde” has reportedly been a Charlize Theron passion project for quite some time. After acquiring the film rights to Johnson’s graphic novel, she tapped John Wick co-director David Leitch to direct the film adaptation. The result is a film that captures much of the same movie magic that Leitch and co-director Chad Stahleski were able to accomplish in “John Wick” (2014) and its more recent sibling, “John Wick: Chapter 2” (2017).
Both Leitch and Stahleski are former stuntmen turned directors, specializing in action features that straddle the lines between realistic and stylistic. As in “John Wick,” their perspective creates a visual experience for “Atomic Blonde” that doesn’t feel particularly unique. Yet the resulting product is so sharp and purposeful that it still feels quite different from the typical action fare audiences have grown accustomed to in recent years.
The co-directors’ latest effort possesses qualities of ‘80s action films, where the fight choreography was focused on longer takes with broader movement by the onscreen characters. But it also incorporates the hyper-realism and quick techniques of contemporary action films – techniques that largely evolved from the popular series of “Bourne” films.
“Atomic Blonde” is very much influenced by how stuntmen are conditioned to view action as a process – a process that in this case captures the essence of what makes Charlize Theron an iconic actress and action star.
“John Wick” was able to take advantage of Keanu Reeves’ steely focus and emotionally distant persona, basing an entire movie around a fictional persona embodying similar characteristics. Likewise, “Atomic Blonde” plays heavily towards the peculiarly intoxicating strengths that Charlize Theron brings to the action genre.
“Atomic Blonde” has all the traditional elements that make for an engrossing spy thriller. Set in the waning days of the Cold War – specifically during the Soviet Union’s failing control of East Berlin in 1989, the film begins as British intelligence agency MI6 dispatches Lorraine Broughton (Theron), one of their top agents, to secure both a file and an asset code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who possesses a comprehensive list of every deep-cover British agents.
After arriving in Berlin, Broughton meets up with her contact, David Percival (James McAvoy). From that point, a web of deceit begins to unfold, taking the story in a familiar direction: that of a tightly constructed spy thriller with all the expected twists, turns and trimmings.
But this isn’t really the main thrust of “Atomic Blonde.” From the film’s promotional trailers to extended preview scenes it systematically released on YouTube, the PR effort consistently focused on this movie’s action elements, not its perfectly fitting spy plot. It was clear from the beginning that everything else here was secondary to the film’s fight choreography, something that’s easily seen in the trailer below:
These lengthy and intricate sequences work to bring out the best in Charlize Theron. They might not work without her at the center of the film – her work ethic in regards to stunts and choreography has been extensively discussed – but at the same time, they’re organically designed to take advantage of things Theron brings to the table.
Her unique skill set includes her exquisitely dance-like martial arts moves – a distinct advantage that recalls her early desire, thwarted by a knee injury, to become a ballet star when she studied at the Joffrey Ballet.
In fact, despite the wide variety of films she’s starred in over the years, Charlize Theron has quietly evolved into one of the better action stars of the last decade or so. “Atomic Blonde” burnishes her reputation in this genre as well as any movie could.
In keeping with the primacy of the action and fight choreography that dominate this film, the narrative line of “Atomic Blonde” is centered around four action set pieces, all of which are designed to show different aspects of Theron’s alter-ego, Lorraine.
All these action sequences have clear objectives from the start. That set-up is important because action sequences function best if they occur in a way that encompasses both the narrative and stylistic elements of film.
“Atomic Blonde” is able to lock into that way of thinking, which is one of the benefits of having a stunt worker like David Leitch directing the film. He’s someone who can think about and then integrate the rhythm and flow of each action scene from a practical standpoint.
The first and last action set pieces are “quick hitters that frame the narrative like a prologue and an epilogue by first introducing Lorraine as she enters Berlin and, at the end, wrapping up the end of her story. Relative to the other action sequences, both of these are fairly compact. The first of these shows Lorraine operating in a severely constrained situation. The last takes place in a hotel, giving her plenty of space to work before she uses a gun to eliminate her targets, offering an extra element of finality as she brings a close to her own story and to the larger landscape of the film itself.
The longer pair of action set pieces work in unison. The space they occupy within the film allow for Leitch and Theron to show off their respective ranges within the context of the action genre.
In the first of these longer action sequences, the audience gets its first real opportunity to see Lorraine function as a highly valued spy. Leitch uses the limited space within this scenario to tightly follow Lorraine as she makes her cat-like moves, dodging the fumbling police.
Leitch’s quick cuts drive the increasingly fast pace of this sequence, focusing on the way Lorraine systematically takes on each cop who enters each room. The audience is never quite clear where Lorraine is at all times, being largely privy instead to the police point of view until she strikes. Leitch’s directorial economy of motion and the way Theron flows through the scene is nearly flawless, right up to and through her character’s creative window exit.
The second lengthy action sequence is much more harrowing for everyone involved. It’s the kind of hyperkinetic scenario that, if successfully acted, choreographed and filmed, will give the actors and filmmakers alike something they can hang their hats on for years.
Running up to the scene, Lorraine protecting the asset everyone has been angling for since the beginning of the film, a wily operative codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a man who has memorized every double agent in the entire MI6 database. The original plan was to get him across the Berlin Wall. But chaos erupts Spyglass gets shot and Lorraine has to improvise, making her way into an office building while being pursued by murderous antagonists.
In context, this sequence is loaded with action and tension, as we follow our heroine while wondering if the gravely-wounded Spyglass is going to make it. But the cinematic conceit behind the action is even more interesting, as it at least appears that it was filmed in a single take. Or, perhaps more importantly, it at least has that feel.
Whatever the reality, the flow of this has to feel uninterrupted, which means the camera has to follow the focus – Lorraine – through doors and up the stairs instead of moving around the walls or changing the perspective when there’s a convenient place to cut to the next shot.
This effect has been pulled off before, but is usually done to make a film look cool. But in “Atomic Blonde,” this technique has a much larger purpose. Lorraine is up against a wall, so the way she maneuvers is vital to successfully concluding her original objective even though it’s not going according to the spymaster script. This elaborate scene isn’t just about her completing a mission. It’s about observing her instinct to survive on multiple levels.
The progressive human wear and tear in this scene is clearly shown on Lorraine, who is faced with an almost endless succession of murderous goons she needs to fend off or kill. Lorraine doesn’t cut down or escape these very bad guys via an endless supply of superhuman endurance, as often happens in films like this one. She has to clearly demonstrate the increasing personal and physical strain of this effort to really draw the audience into her reality.
This is where “Atomic Blonde” works for Charlize Theron. As every new obstacle is thrown at her character, it’s easy to see how Lorraine is gradually drained, but how she still needs to possess just enough reserve just to make it out of the building with her asset alive. The whole, brilliant montage works incomparably well not only because of this character’s endless inventiveness, but also because Theron is able to make us believe.
“Atomic Blonde’s” filmmakers break the mold of this genre by creating a high-substance action film for a female action star. The film doesn’t exactly feel new, but it absolutely feels fresh. The creativity and slickness of Leitch’s action-style of directing works for Charlize Theron, allowing her the leeway to create what’s arguably a new standard of excellence for spy-action thrillers.