‘Atomic Blonde’ stuns with aesthetic

“Atomic Blonde” was released July 28 as director David Leitch's first solo directorial credit. The film is a mystery/thriller starring Charlize Theron. Photo courtesy of Focus Feature.

“Atomic Blonde” stars Charlize Theron as a cold, brutal, bisexual spy in a neon-infused 1989 Berlin, with the mission to find a list of allied and enemy agents that’s been compromised. The movie is the directorial debut of David Leitch, and it relies heavily on his background in stunt coordination. Despite having a complicated, yet cliche plot, the movie is a pleasure to look at and listen to.

Going into the movie, I didn’t expect a feminist take on the action genre. The film is set in 1989 Berlin, and Lorraine (Theron) works in a male-dominated field. Theron isn’t filmed from titillating angles, but instead, the camera treats her as it would a male lead. In the introduction shot of Lorraine, she is in a bathtub, covered in bruises and cuts, and yet as she moves from the bath to the mirror, she’s shot from angles that treat her as a human instead of a slab of meat. Throughout the movie, Theron is shot (when not in action sequences) to help show her thought process, not to sexualize. Her body is seen by the camera as a cold killing machine, with wounds shown realistically and without restraint for the sake of beauty.

In the film, there is a sex scene between Lorraine and another woman. Initially, I was apprehensive, as lesbian sex is often portrayed in a way to appeal to straight men, but in “Atomic Blonde” that isn’t the case. The scene isn’t gratuitous, the cinematography maintains consistent with the rest of the movie and it isn’t out of character.

“Atomic Blonde” chooses a specific aesthetic, starting with the opening shot, and it sticks to this visual language till the very end. Lighting communicates the mood of nearly every scene in harsh neon tones. Lorraine’s clothes are featured as stunning, almost futuristic outfits, and hair and makeup are frequently featured by the camera. Lorraine’s injuries are fantastic in their detail, but even more impressive because of their continuity throughout the film. All of this together creates a visual style that is very specific to “Atomic Blonde.” It isn’t fully ‘80s, nor is it today, and it certainly doesn’t look like any other action movie.

The plot, which revolves double agents, a powerful list and four intelligence agencies, is complicated by a lack of overt explanation to the view, but it remains intelligible and even surprising at times. The plot isn’t as complex as the Cold War era spy film, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” but it is arguably better than recent James Bond installments. I would advise you not to expect much from the plot, but instead go to this movie for its well-choreographed action and beautiful neon aesthetic.

Theron is the absolute star of this film. James McAvoy and John Goodman put forth good performances, but Theron’s ice cold, two-dimensional character is captivating. While watching, I realized that perhaps she made a more compelling James Bond than Daniel Craig, with her steely demeanor and penchant for a specific drink. With every fight, ice bath and Stoli on the rocks, I came to like her portrayal even more. Even though she didn’t put on a range of emotion, she did make me want to see whatever movie she stars in next.

“Atomic Blonde” has arguably the best action sequences in recent memory, and its interesting and beautiful aesthetic make me want to see it again, even if the plot isn’t great. I’ll be on the lookout for both Leitch and Theron’s next works, and hopefully they’ll live up to my new expectations.

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