Disclaimer: Writing about this movie without spoilers is impossible, so do not read further if you don’t want spoilers.
Atomic Blonde (2017) director David Leich describes his film based on the Antony Johnson graphic novel The Coldest City (2016) as a “Neon Noir retro MTV video.” I’d have to agree, but I also have to give Leich credit for creating a retro film that viscerally plunges us both into the past and the present. Set in November 1989, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, the movie’s fast-punching cinematography and tightly orchestrated soundtrack of 80s music (from Queen’s “Under Pressure” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, and songs by Bowie, New Order, Flock of Seagulls George Michael and more) psychically merges the cold war under Reagan with the insanity of today’s push-pull American-Russian relations. A spy thriller that spins on a thousand plot twists and turns, the movie delivers a picture of paranoia, retaliation, confused identity, and the strife and tension of living in a land ideologically divided. The movie is at once a portrait of Berlin during the fall of communism, and a reflection of the pressure cooker we are currently experiencing living in the Divided States of America.
I know that pressure cooker. I’ve been living it, and it has left me retreating to the material world of things where I am not being bombarded by the soundbites and memes traveling through the interwebs at high speed and filling my brain with flagrant idiocy and doom. I even stopped writing about movies because I couldn’t imagine where they fit in a world that seems to be coming to an end every five minutes with the high-speed delivery of mediated news. Then I saw Atomic Blonde, three times in fact, and its influence jolted me out of my numb state and inspired me to write what you are reading right now. Why this movie, you may ask? I’m going to tell you.
Many critics have derided the film as nonsensical action. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times writes that the movie is “little more than a series of artily violent, inventively choreographed fights glued together by nonsense and Charlize Theron.” But those critics are missing the point. In this movie, the fight scenes are the mainlining mode of delivery that allow the audience to rise out of a state of numb retreat and feel something that acutely relates to the world we are living in now, even though the world of Cold War M16 and KGB double and triple agents may seem far removed from our reality. Leitch takes a hammer to distance (sometimes literally in the film) by using the material world of flesh-on-flesh, hardware, metal, tools, kitchenware and the concrete material of the world to knock the audience into consciousness. Maybe this approach doesn’t save the world, but it most definitely has a therapeutic effect. We are living in a time when creatives, artists, and people in general have numbed themselves with growing despair. They are living a life of dissociation, and this film is a cry to snap out of it and FEEL.
No, movies don’t solve the world’s problems. But right now, we are living in a nation where many people have retreated into mute depression. I myself have been hibernating in the tactile world of reality. I have preferred climbing mountains and picking up paints to swimming in the deluge of bad news spilling out of smart phone and laptop screens like an unstoppable sewage leak. Hibernating does not mean that I’m not mad. I’m fucking furious, and Atomic Blonde has given me a place to feel my fury, see my fury, and articulate my fury here, in these words. When I watch the film’s title character Lorraine Broughton take on the world of deceivers with every tangible item you could find on the kitchen counter or in the hardware store, I’m fighting right along with her. Bring on the garden hose of destruction, and pummel the haters with refrigerator doors. Leitch says: “I find fight scenes actually more interesting, in a way, than chase scenes because you’re watching your character go through this problem-solving process and fight the antagonist mano-a-mano. It’s more powerful, more emotional.” I feel that emotion with every corkscrew in the eye and keys stabbed into the cheek of the stream of men out to assail Lorraine, who turns out to be a triple agent but is first and foremost a FREE agent.
Admittedly, I am a woman, and being a woman is not entirely fun ever and especially right now. So seeing Lorraine Broughton lay waste to scores of men who are trying to kill her, steal from her, beat her, or cheat her is very satisfying, particularly because the vast majority of the action, no matter how extreme or stylized, still feels plausible. We can feel that reality when Lorraine’s fists and feet connect to faces and as she pierces her attacker’s skulls with various metal objects. It makes a big difference that Theron, who was a dancer, has the ability to perform all her own stunts in the film except for a few that would have put her life in danger. When she spends nine minutes in a stairwell and apartment in East Berlin fighting off a relentless crew of KGB assailants with everything from the butt of a gun to a two-burner hot plate, we are actually watching and feeling Theron herself, not a stunt double and not a CGI replacement. The entire film carries through with the feel of authentic materiality even if most of it comes through violence. I cheered for the hot plate when I saw it on the counter. I implored Lorraine to pick it up and use it. And she does use it, quite masterfully to smash her enemy’s knees and other body parts. The emotional release I felt when that kitchen object connected with the assailant’s knees was borderline orgasmic, because living in the pressure cooker of this past year has sucked, and I would certainly enjoy the physical pleasure of whacking a few knees — or heads — with a hot plate.
How does Atomic Blonde manage to become so relevant our current madness while being set nearly three decades ago? First, the movie is bookended by the face of “the guy who started it all.” Both the beginning and the end of the film showcase Ronald Reagan’s grainy face filling the screen of old cathode ray TVs and speaking about those evil Commie bastards. We only see his face twice, but the entire movie is contained by it as a reminder that Ronald Reagan used things like Russophobia to promote his campaign of unfettered free trade and the rampant and rapid decimation of the working class. Good old Ronnie set the stage for and fed the socio-political petri dish that bred a country full of people who were filled with enough desperation and lack of opportunity to translate their needs into hate and false hope and attach them to a billionaire loser named Donald Trump. Trump and his supporters are descendants of Reagan.
The Berlin Wall may have crashed, but this movie situates us within the reality of our own political divide here in the US. There is no wall dividing the Confederate states from the rest of the country, but the ideological wall pressing against us is as divisive and toxic as the Berlin Wall. Atomic Blonde rises to the occasion to remind us of that. We have become the receivers of constant signals of shit, and this movie is a call to action to get our heads off of Facebook, and fend off the enemies with hoses and corkscrews. When Lorraine first situates the film within history and geography, she describes Berlin as a place that calls to mind those kinds of movies where the film starts burning and bubbling and catches fire, at which point we cut to an image of a film strip burning and imploding. This image is both a call to remember the age when media was more carefully considered (say, the age of film) and a reminder that materials like film are now endangered species, and maybe we need to grab onto the real world a little harder.
Yes, the movie is basically a sequence of fist and foot fights that leave us gasping with their physical intensity, but they are also beautifully orchestrated to music of the 80s. In a review for Vulture, David Edelstein writes, “you don’t go to operas for dancing or ballets for singing, and you don’t see Atomic Blonde for anything but a badass female protagonist crunching bones and pulping faces in gratifyingly long takes or remarkable simulations thereof. The auteur here is literally the stunt man.” But Edelstein neglects to mention that the movie does indeed play like both an opera and a ballet because of the incredibly precise use of music and the beautifully choreographed “dance” scenes with Theron manipulating her body in graceful defiance. Every song in the film enters and connects with the same punch as those being thrown by Theron, and they are syncopated with precise connection to action, whether it’s a foot landing on the tarmac or a Porsche flying precariously through a tunnel.
The first lyrics sung in Atomic Blonde are from New Order’s “Blue Monday” (1988) which begins with the question “How does it feel?” and ends with the refrain “Tell me how do I feel. Tell me now, how should I feel?” The key word here is “feel.” Today, nearly thirty years since the collapse of the Berlin wall and living in a nation as volatilely divided as Germany was, even if our wall is invisible, many people have disassociated as a result of being bombarded with negativity from Facebook posts and YouTube videos. It’s like we are the receivers of leaked information, but it’s leaking so rapidly, it floods us with things we lack the capacity to register. We can’t see it or hear or touch it in a way that makes sense. We literally have forgotten how to feel. It’s all hyperbole coming from the hyper-sonic interweb waves in the era of the Mad Tweeting President. We are ill and shell-shocked with 140 character bullets. At the multiplex, we are bombarded with CGI special effects in a never ending array of comic book resurrections that have no real bodies. We live in a disembodied state, in a divided country, and Atomic Blonde gives us what we need to snap the fuck out of it and FEEL again.
The New Order song accompanies a man running in his underwear and overcoat through freezing Berlin while being chased by a car. He ends up crushed to death, thrown over a wall and into a river. We then cut to another image of feeling when we meet the Lorraine, the “atomic blonde.” She stares out at us through a bruised and lacerated face. Lips split and bleeding, eyes blackened and bloody, her body a map of slashes and contusions, she is definitely feeling, and we wince looking at her because by looking straight into us, she is saying FEEL this. Then she dives into a bathtub filled with water and ice cubes, and we wince again with the sting of the cold. So we are wincing doubly in this scene, but also oddly experiencing the tension between what we are feeling and the bodily knowledge that ice is numbing. This is the tension that makes the film so effective today, as so many of us vacillate between numb disassociation and all-consuming outrage. Because our political culture is coming at us in this rapid-fire way and we are scrambling trying to find our footing, it seems like we are “putting out fire with gasoline”, as David Bowie sings in the next song in the movie that plays, while Lorraine burns a photo of her and the man who we just saw get crushed. There are all kinds of feelings happening in this landscape, and we are only ten minutes into the film at most.
This film’s pervasive insistence that we feel is intensified by both the “reality” and proximity of the actors. David Leitch comes from the stunt world, and he uses that skill set to exploit the action for fullest effect. The camera tracks the characters in relentless heart-pounding pursuit, or it gets right in their faces (literally inches away at times) pushing the reality of the flesh and blood right into the audience’s face. He steers clear of special effects, but instead relies on everyday items to deliver the action. A refrigerator door becomes a lifesaving weapon, and a roll of duct tape stops a man from bleeding to death. Leitch explained that “one of the standing orders for the action to the stunt team was, we wanted to use found objects as props. How could a spy who’s maybe outmatched by weight and size defeat a larger opponent?” Perhaps that is also where the satisfaction and release come from in this movie, in its suggestion that the little guy stands a chance with the low-tech tools he or she has at hand. That we can be small, that we may not be armed with high-tech weapons, but goddammit, we can take the motherfuckers down with the butt end of our red high heel shoe!
Exactly who are the “motherfuckers” to take down? Apparently, they are everywhere. No one is who we think he or she is, and all truth is ambiguous. In fact, truth doesn’t exist, and we need to “trust no one.” Sound familiar? While Lorraine is the central character, the film is loaded with characters who are not what they seem, and honestly we mostly never really find out who they are because, well, we live in a world of deception and lies, especially in politics when everyone is trying to leverage secrets for power. Besides Charlize Theron’s fleshy and flashy performance as Lorraine, I have to admit that I was quite smitten with the Machiavellian David Percival played with delightful nihilistic and selfish humor by James McAvoy.
It’s no surprise that the Russians are scary guys. One scene with the Russians that takes place in East Berlin provides the Coup de Grace for the violence, humor, and materiality that make this film squirmingly experiential. Roland Møller plays the quietly foreboding KGB operative Aleksander Bremovych, who oozes menace at every turn. Early on he meets up with a group of young East Berliners looking for the Stasi agent Spyglass, who apparently is holding a list of all the bad deeds of all the secret people everywhere! Bremovych arrives on the cement block scene carrying a boombox and demanding answers from the young men who mostly seem to be high on glue and gasoline. When one of them comes up empty, Bremovych beats the kid with his own skateboard to the bouncy beauty of Nena singing “99 Luftballoons”. He then kicks the boombox to death, as cassette tape, plastic, and electronics are crushed under his bad ass KGB shoe. Sure the scene is brutally violent, but Leitch knows how to play just the right balance between violence and humor, and we end up laughing because, well, laughter is equally emotionally cathartic as flesh-on-flesh combat.
As a woman who has survived a good deal of shit at the hands of men, I admit that I took delight in every scene in which Lorraine kicks ass. I also related to her reserve and restraint in regards to letting her heart out. She does leak a little bit with French operative Delfine Lasalle (softcore warning) from whom Lorraine learns the very important lesson in this hard-boiled world: Telling the truth can get you killed. But what is truth? As we know from the world we live in today when news is manipulated hourly (at least) to incite fear, paranoia, or emotional shutdown, even truth is almost never what it seems.
We can’t help but side with Lorraine even if she is a triple agent spy. Toward the end of the movie, she lets aforementioned Russian scary guy Bremovych have it with an ice pick and says, “I never worked for you. I work for myself.” This is wonderful and liberating news. Lorraine is a free agent! Up to this point, the movie had me by the balls I don’t literally have, but then the film ends on an ideological note that’s hard to accept. Lorraine joins CIA agent Emmet Kurzfeld (John Goodman) on a swank US Secret Service flight back to the USA, where she is “going home.” In the end, she is American, and she does choose sides. Sure, it’s her side. She is American and is tired of being in the rat race, but I would have loved the film that much more if she had taken the watch that contained the notorious “list” and either pocketed it or smashed it (with her red high heeled shoe) and walked off screen leaving us wondering. But this is a Hollywood movie, so it ends with the Brit and Russian agents dead, while the triple American agent Lorraine turns over the list to a man and returns to the United States . . . alive. What a letdown!
Nevertheless, the film’s impact up to that point kept me coming back for more. Psychologists across the spectrum are investigating the effects of Trump Trauma, the rise in suicides and depression after the 2016 election, and the debilitating anxiety and fear that are epidemic among millions of people. Atomic Blonde is not going to start a revolution, but maybe it will bring feeling back to those who have retreated into a state of numbness. Maybe it will remind some of us to fight instead of shutting up. Maybe it can provide 115 minutes of relief. Most importantly, the movie connects us back to the concrete world even if it’s still a movie. It reminds us that posting an 140 character Tweet is not as impactful as slamming the fuck out of a violating asshole with a freezer door.
We are reminded of the shift from material to virtual culture in a brief archival MTV news clip where we are told “sampling” is the biggest threat to society. Indeed, we just experienced a movie where music was used to its fullest effect, and every action was uniquely real and bodily felt. The reference to sampling reminds us that at that moment when the Berlin Wall was coming down, we were also entering a paradigm shift in history, when the unreal began to take hold through technological “progress”, and we started moving away from the concrete world and became dominated by the shifting illusions and paranoid culture of the internet. Maybe it’s time to turn off the computer, step outside, and put out fire with gasoline. Maybe it’s time take up sledge hammers and tear down walls. I’d check the time, but the watch is on its way back to Langley. Maybe it’s time to take the watch back.
‘Atomic Blonde’ Director: How I Made Five Kick-Ass Action Sequences. RollingStone. July 31, 2017.
Darghis, Manohla. Dressed to Kill, ‘Atomic Blonde’ Also Shoots to Kill. New York Times. July 27, 2017
Edelstein, David. Atomic Blonde Has an Incomprehensible Plot, But the Action Is Absolutely Smashing. Vulture. July 28, 2017.