Atomic Blonde

Year: 2017
Production Co: 87Eleven
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, Til Schwieger

Every now and then a movie arrives that resets a genre. The Blair Witch Project did it for horror, Avatar did it for sci-fi, and Jaws did it for populist blockbusters.

I'm sure director David Leitch (John Wick) was more concerned with making a good movie than resetting the action genre, but he's come as close to doing so as any film has done since Die Hard.

Not to say Atomic Blonde is a great movie (which it is), but Leitch – a stunt coordinator and second unit director – takes great pains to make the action scenes as authentic as they can possibly be, particularly the central stairway battle between hero Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) and a squad of bad guys.

Most movie fights are so staged and choregraphed they look like ballet, but where the apartment building melee was undoubteldy just as precisely designed, it looks and feels exactly what you imagine a brutal fistfight would between lissome but highly trained woman and a bunch of determined bad guys.

The single take sequence doesn't contain a single frame that seems cartoony or artificial. There's real violence – the actual crunching of bones and splitting of skin, the painful thud of the weight of a body hitting a floor or rolling down stairs, the sweat, exhaustion, mussed up hair and damaged clothing. It's a brilliant scene and would make a gripping short film just by itself.

But the movie around it is no less kinetic and vibrant. Broughton is an MI6 operative being interviewed by her shadowy handlers back in Britain after a mission to Berlin about her recent mission, which we see in flashback.

It's the freewheeling era right before the wall comes down and the snowy metropolis is crawling with lowlives on the take, brutal Soviet henchmen and tetchy Stasi cops (sometimes all in one). Broughton is sent in to investigate the murder of another agent and the disappearance of an explosive list that identifies double agents.

She has to connect with Berlin station chief Percival, a hard drinking, hard talking sleazebag who's been there too long and gone badly native – and who's therefore perfectly played by James McAvoy.

She also hooks up with a shapely French secret service agent – literally so, in one of several scenes that signal both Leitch and the studio's intention not to serve up a bland PG rating.

The flimsy story is a little harder to remember in the weeks after you've watched it, but Leitch is a master visualist. Like he did with the distinctive visual style of John Wick, his East Berlin – with its juxtaposition between the neon light and the grey Soviet architecture – is incredibly arresting.

From the poster on down, the whole experience of the film has been production designed and art directed up the wazoo and it showcases the talents of the below the line art people just as much as Leitch's stunt performers and team.

But even though it doesn't affect your enjoyment of the movie, doesn't anybody realise how many times the Macguffin of the list of spies' identities has been used as the inciting incident in spy thrillers? From the original Mission: Impossible to at least one of the Daniel Craig James Bond films and beyond, you'd think these security services would find a better way to document their employees.

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