David Leitch, “Atomic Blonde” (2017)
I confess I had very low expectations of this spy action thriller film. I was pleasantly surprised that the acting was half-decent even though the script gave the cast very little to work on and sacrificed character development and motivation for violence of a relentlessly brutal and bloody nature. Charlize Theron plays the titular character in an assortment of stylish monochrome clothes (and red stiletto-heeled shoes that come in handy in smashing someone’s face to a pulp) as she stalks the streets of West Berlin and East Berlin in late 1989. The East German government has been more or less hung out to dry by the Soviets under Mikhail Gorbachev and crowds in East Berlin are baying for reunification with their brothers and sisters in West Berlin. In the meantime, an expensive watch containing a list of double agents and their details, provided by an East German Stasi agent called Spyglass, has been taken by Soviet spy Yuri Bakhtin from British spy James Gascoigne. US and UK intelligence agencies scramble to get the watch and rescue Spyglass by despatching the plutonium blonde bombshell Lorraine Broughton (Theron) – well at least she has a normal jolly-hockeysticks name, not a suggestive Bond-girl monicker – to the divided city. An additional assignment is to find and get rid of a mysterious double agent called Satchel who has been selling secrets to Moscow. Broughton meets up with British agent David Percival (James McAvoy), in charge of the Berlin spy station for MI6, to trace the whereabouts of the watch. While the two have various adventures clobbering KGB agents and Broughton manages to fit in some nooky with young rookie French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), the watch itself changes hands between Bakhtin and Percival. Broughton and Percival try to spirit Spyglass out of East Berlin but after more fistfights and car chases resulting in a long list of casualties both human and machine, Spyglass ends up being killed and Broughton eventually realises that Percival is out to bump her and new girlfriend Delphine off.
The action is fast-paced with new incidents following hot on the heels of the last incident (whatever that was) to keep the ketchup flowing. Theron keeps busy pounding the pavements in her high-heeled boots and pounding enemy agents with her fists which I suppose is some compensation for the frustration of having to work with a lightweight script and a one-dimensional character. McAvoy and the rest of the cast do what they can to support Theron and John Goodman as CIA supremo Kurzfeld is always a scene-stealer. The film’s setting in West and East Berlin in 1989 provides the necessary ideological / political contrasts between the gritty and desperate East Berlin city-scapes and the more slick and glamorous West Berlin side to give the movie that needed counter-cultural hipster hard-edged cool to haul in the Generation Y audiences. A soundtrack of popular if banal songs from the 1980s punctuates the film so loudly and brashly that all the songs end up sounding trashier than they did originally 30 years ago, and any meaning or significance they might have had then completely evaporates: this applies even to New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Nena’s “99 Luftballons”. What does the culture of 1980s East Berlin have to offer? Well, it offers Andrei Tarkovsky’s moody and contemplative “Stalker”, a film now recognised as a classic by film critics and audiences on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Someone’s having the last laugh somewhere.
In a film that really has nothing to say, apart from gawping at German post-punk youth culture without understanding the political background that made it so attractive to Germans and non-Germans alike, Leitch has to pad out the script with thuggish violence, car chases, icky music (good thing David Bowie’s albums “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” were never chart-toppers in the 1980s or a song from one of those albums would have been included) and silly plot twists that add no depth to the narrative or the characters themselves. The ultimate identity of the mole Satchel ends up being elusive and in itself a ploy by the CIA to provide falsified information to the Soviets. What does all the double dealing and triple dealing ultimately prove about the nature of espionage and intelligence gathering done by government agencies? When the body count finally stops for lack of fresh meat and all the wreckage has been hauled away and the streets cleaned with a new layer of asphalt, little has been gained by opposed spies and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall replaces one truth understood by Western and Communist spy agencies with another: that such organisations and the nature of international espionage are but veils of illusion obscuring reality.
When a film milks aspects of late 1980s German youth culture as cynically and superficially as “Atomic Blonde” does, that surely tells us that the film-makers have failed to understand that culture and its music, let alone the political and ideological context that underpins them.