Atomic Blonde (15)

MANY are viewing this female-led, action-packed spy thriller as another pointer towards a female 007. But it’s tempting to think that with agents like Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde, who needs James Bond at all?

Just like Bond, Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 agent who is smart, resourceful, a loner and very, very handy in a fight. More than Bond, she’s bisexual (at least when the situation calls for it), compassionate, and bleeds and bruises like a normal human being. In short, she’s arguably a far more interesting proposition.

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Based on a graphic novel, the story is set in 1989, in the powder keg days leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. But as a canny opening caption points out, “this is not that story”. Instead, the spy masters of both East and West are panicking about the existence of a file with the names of all their agents. And everyone wants to get their hands on it.

With one MI6 agent already murdered in Berlin, Broughton is sent to find the list and catch a traitorous spy known as Satchel. Her contact is the head of the Berlin office, David Percival (James McAvoy), an errant chap who seems to be enjoying the city’s famed club scene and profiting from its black market far more than he is fighting for queen and country. Could he, in fact, be the traitor?

Broughton’s mission is told in flashback as she explains to her superiors in London how it all went wrong. It’s a mystery that won’t become clear until the very end of the film. In the meantime, there’s the strong possibility that Broughton, openly disrespectful of her bosses, is an unreliable narrator. One thing she says is clearly true – that when she was sent to Berlin it was into a hornet’s nest.

Double agents, traitors and a coveted file all make for a fairly familiar scenario. What’s novel here is the lead character and the setting, a Berlin where political tension and social unrest are accompanied by a cultural explosion of art and music.

The introduction of Broughton – naked in a bathtub fall of ice, her bruised, muscular body shining in Arctic blue light – sums up a decidedly cool customer, and a tougher nut than anyone around her. The South African Theron’s clipped, clean English accent adds to the cool, hard image, and the actress is outstanding in fight scenes that are as brutal as those in the Bond and Jason Bourne films.

If Broughton is ice, McAvoy’s Percival is fire – untrustworthy, chaotic, debauched, a character closer to the Scot’s corrupt cop in Filth than his squeaky clean Professor X. He’s also funny, as evidenced by McAvoy’s first line to his co-star as he pleads: “Don’t shoot. I’ve got your shoe.”

Unfortunately, the film is very uneven. Not surprisingly for a former stunt man of high repute, director David Leitch orchestrates some viscerally exciting fight scenes and car chases. But away from the action, he’s trying way too hard to make an impression.

The film is positively drowning in self-conscious style; the pace is frantic, the soundtrack often intrusive (despite the likes of New Order, Bowie and Queen), the plotting messy. The woeful script does nothing to help a fine cast, which includes Eddie Marsan as a Stasi agent, Sofia Boutella as a novice French spy with an amorous eye on Broughton, and Toby Jones as the Brit’s London chief.

But Theron’s Broughton definitely deserves another crack in the field. Perhaps with someone else pulling the agent’s strings.