This weekend, I went ahead and experimented with a micro-review of sorts for David Leitch's post Wick spy adaptation. And while my initial thoughts leaned toward the lavishly stylized, yet occasionally overcooked final product, I'm about to perform the improbable, and state here that Atomic Blonde, is a film that demands more than one sitting for proper digestion. I can only speak for myself, in that the presentation might be something of a hurdle to get past that initial viewing. But come the second time, so much began to hit the pleasure and inspiration centers of my mind. And knowing how it ends, actually helped me better understand who was who, the whys, as well as the often distant demeanor that the film encompasses throughout its running time. So yes. Stating here and now, that I actually admire the film now for what it's attempting to do, and often succeeds at; presenting us with a vision of post-modern romance with 1980s europhila, coupled with an often cutting deconstruction of the spy film genre.
It's a film that is equally in love with a generation's pop art vision of latter Cold War intrigue, but isn't willing to lean either way into its politics. In fact, the film is openly exploring just how broken and desolate the lives of spies can really be, even as the world suggests that their larger goals are beginning to shift. History is in the making along the periphery of the narrative, as the Berlin Wall seems ever closer to falling in November 1989. And despite fiercely capable agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron)'s mission to recapture a watch containing a sensitive list of hidden agents(Yes, it's that cliche again.), machinations are at play beyond the fact that the KGB, is very much in the know of her presence in Berlin. And once she meets her local contact in David Percival(James McAvoy), it becomes quite evident that not only is she being treated like a hunted wolf, she's also bent on more than mere duty or revenge for the death of former colleague, and lover, James Gascoine. Her seemingly unflappable cold gaze, is betrayed by an often telling look, or slip of the tongue. Bathing in tubs filled with ice, enshrouded in an unearthly blue, Broughton is both searingly cold on the surface, but has a quiet simmer just brimming beneath the seemingly hard surface.
While the spy genre has indeed experienced attempts at deconstruction. One could argue that Daniel Craig's entire run as James Bond, has been a process of both deconstruction and apotheosis regarding our prolonged affection for both masculine ideals, coupled with an almost voyeuristic lust for the visage of the untethered spy. But what Atomic Blonde, posits, is that to be a successful spy, one must numb, no let's rephrase. We have to kill sentiment. Any semblance of humanity in order to get the job done. As displayed by endless baths in ice. Frigid looking hotel rooms. And an absolute use of humanness as little more than a mask to deceive and procure. Nothing less. The Spy world is cruel, paranoid, and unforgiving. Those without these qualities are little more than incidental. And those pretending to understand the spy game, can only eventually find themselves decomposing in some dank Berlin alleyway.
This is further evidenced by Lorraine's encounters throughout the film, from her superiors back at MI6, her contacts, and even those she is tasked with helping along the way. Her demeanor is well-honed, reluctant as each new wrinkle is brought to her attention, and with a resolve that is both alluring, and clearly dangerous. But the real juice of this deceptively cold film, comes from the reality that her world is perpetually attempting to allow something her job simply has no room for warmth. Her survival, and success depends on that ever present danger for any person who lives like a human chess piece, our own need to be defined. We see it from the very start with her ice bath days after the action has already taken place. Despite her still being alive, there is a hint of loss. And it's in many ways one of the only time we get to see this outside of a bedside admission, and perhaps even waking from a dream.
And this is where the film's biggest tell behind it's seemingly detached aura. Like many three strip Technicolor films of the past, Atomic Blonde's largest contribution beyond the screenplay, and eurowave of classic 80s radio hits, is it's color coding scheme. Something that should not only grant the film a singular look that almost apes the prints of one Patrick Nagel, but also gives away the film's biggest secret; Lorraine, in order to complete her mission- No. The only way she could become who she has to be, is to kill sentiment. Hence the ice bath. Her visage throughout the film is almost constantly in snow white combinations of clothing. Her colors most vibrant during her testimony with her superiors, and guest from the CIA. She is walking ice that requires a "recharge" every so often to keep matters sharp. So the key toward understanding her, and the film as a whole?
Follow the Red.
Red, is the color of not only passion, but of truth. And in the film, red represents the vitality and inspiration often missing from her life. Which is why so much of Delphine LaSalle(Sofia Boutella)'s scenes are part, or wholly washed in red. These are the moments where we are allowed something of a more intimate side to Lorraine's inner self, desires, hopes, and ultimately reality. We even get a truly on the nose tell with her hotel room, awash in the expected cold hues, broken by a red door, with Delphine knocking behind it. There's another life hoping to come in, but for the sake of the larger mission, it's merely a distraction. This takes on an even crueler thematic dimension when one considers the characters who die throughout. It's no accident that red plays a part in the film's more climactic moments. Sentiment simply has no place in Lorraine's world. There is nothing but the mission. Even as Berlin is united, trust remains an almost impossible dream for many, especially those in the spy business. And this includes those who have tried their hand at it, not aware of the cost to one's soul. The color scheme, and the story seek to convey a terrible reality behind those who would live a litany of deception in the name of national security. Not everyone can be one. And those that adhere to the fantasy remain merely that, on the sidelines, bit players, or as random casualties in an endless war of shadows. Characters die, because they aren't a part of the fabric of the game beyond either a tool, or a clay pigeon. And in this film, love dies, identity dies, conscience dies, because this world is a spiritual vacuum from which passion is never allowed space to breathe.
This is further explored with the story of Percival, who's motivations become increasingly blurred, ostensibly dooming him to become a permanent totem of a Berlin now on the way out.
Deception to others. To comrades. To the self. It's a way of life.
In the world of this film, it's a warning to all of what processes led to the world we currently share. Not the most charming or warm message to impart.
So the film does run into problems by working not unlike a clinical examination. Warmth, is a luxury that the film, and its characters in no way are granted, save for another vodka, or a late night, half drunken tryst. It functions like a teenage daydream of a music video cum video game piece of art house without a human anchor to hold it down. And this is pretty much intentional. As to whether or not this was a good idea will remain in the eye of the beholder.For better or worse, Atomic Blonde, is a vision of human betrayal as daily reality, and that isn't something everyone is very willing to accept.