“Atomic Blonde”

 

            This kind of role suits Charlize Theron:  coldly glamorous and stylishly lethal.  She plays a spy, Lorraine Broughton, operating in Cold War-era Berlin, just before The Wall came down.  MI6 sends her to that hotbed of clandestine activity ostensibly in order to recover a list of operative agents, which threatens to undermine the serenity of both her superiors and their American counterparts in the CIA.

            When she arrives, she's supposed to be met by David Percival (James McAvoy), himself a station chief, who's been entrenched there for 10 years, and seems to have gone a bit native.  But Lorraine sees through his charming, disarming“I'm-hungover-and-dissolute-and-I'm-in-over-my-head” routine.  (Others he meets are fooled into lowering their guard around him; assuming him to be an incompetent:  an often fatal mistake.) 

            Since the movie is based on a graphic novel, we have lots of glossy photo ops but not much in the way of plot subtlety.  Lorraine is constantly walking into traps where she has to use her considerable combat skills to survive, but not without some cuts and bruises herself.  And some unexpected betrayals.  Most of the story is told in retrospect, in an emotionally-charged de-briefing session, where she is unafraid to accuse her superiors of setting her up, not only to test the moxie of Percival (and is he really a double agent?), but also as “bait” for securing that elusive list, which has already claimed the life of anyone who pursues it.

            But as smooth and lovely as Lorraine is, she's a hard character to like, primarily because she's such a hard character.  She doesn't seem to make any connection with any genuine emotion; she seems to possess no humor except a sarcastic snicker.  She certainly is far removed from the tongue-in-cheek, savoir-faire irony of a James Bond-type operative.  There's nothing soft or self-deprecating about her.  Even her one apparently romantic encounter, with lovely French operative Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) doesn't seem to bring out any vulnerability in her; only in Delphine.

            The whole impression is a little bit like John le Carre's spy novels:  it takes on the point of view of the characters who aren't quite sure what's happening, with the result that the viewer is never quite sure, either.  But it's all part of the slick intrigue.

            It's very violent, but then, that's not too surprising for a movie featuring a frothing nest of spies in a rapidly-changing political context at the cusp of a great paradigm shift.  But Lorraine Broughton is the kind of rough-and-tumble secret agent you'd like to have on your side. 

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  How many operatives do you suppose we have in other countries, and how many do you suppose other countries have here?

2)                  How much violence is acceptable in the interests of “national security”?

3)                  Is there such a thing as a “righteous murder” in counterespionage?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association