For years there have been rumblings that it was time for a female to inherit the role of James Bond. 1995’s GoldenEye caused shock for some when Judi Dench took over as M, even though in real life MI-5 already had its first female Director-General, Stella Rimington, since 1992. Dench became one of the best parts of the series for the next 20 years.
We’ve seen a renaissance for the female hero. Wonder Woman has spent the last few months in the top 10 at the box office, and Jodie Whittaker will take over the most iconic role in British Science Fiction as the 14th Doctor. The most compelling characters in the powerhouse “Game of Thrones” are the women, particularly the lethally evil Cersei, her nemesis Daenerys, and the assassin Arya. (They’ve also survived, where most of the men have not.) Daniel Craig remains as 007, but progress has a way of building a better road if the old path is closed. So we have Charlize Theron out-Bonding Bond in the spy thriller Atomic Blonde.
Theron not only stars but produced the film. She’d bought the rights to the graphic novel “The Coldest City” before it was published. Kurt Johnstad, hired to adapt the story, is best known for adapting another graphic novel to the screen: Frank Miller’s 300. Directing duties were given to David Leitch, the former stuntman/actor who helped make John Wick a sleeper hit. In fact, Theron trained with Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2. But what helped launch the filming of Blonde was Theron’s visceral performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. While Tom Hardy had the title role, the movie revolved around Furiosa at its heart. Theron delivered in the role, and showed she could handle the action.
Rather than use Bond as a template, Blonde’s DNA goes back to the hard-edged spy movies of the 1960s that were a reaction against the camp of 007. Blonde has the blood of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File (among others) spilling across the screen. It also has the violent action turned up to eleven, including a ten-minute ballet of bullets and blood that’s cut to look like one continuous shot. The camera twists through 360 degree turns as Theron fights her way down a staircase and out of a building.
The story is set in November 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s told in flashback as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is debriefed by her superior Eric Gray (Tobey Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), while the head of MI-6, C (James Faulkner), watches through one-way glass. She was sent to Berlin to recover a miniaturized file hidden in a watch that has information about agents around the globe. A Soviet agent took it off a British agent, killing the Brit in the process, but rather than submit it to Moscow, he’s gone rogue and aims to sell the file to the highest bidder.
The mission’s compromised from the moment Broughton steps off her flight to Berlin. Representatives of a KGB arms dealer try to kidnap her at the airport, but she manages to escape and makes contact with the British station chief in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). Percival covers his spy activities as a black marketer in East Berlin, though it’s an open question as to which job has his loyalties. Also in the mix is a beautiful though inexperienced French agent, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who wants to defect.
The plot of Atomic Blonde is a dizzying trail of double- and triple-crosses. You may find yourself wishing for a score card to help keep track of everything. Boughton is almost constantly in peril, but those who go up against her find themselves to be the ones in danger. With her background in dance, and after working with eight trainers in preparation for the movie, Theron shows herself to be a match for any male action hero. But don’t mistake the physical action for the cartoonish version seen in many films. Leitch shows the physical and emotional drain of the fight sequences. When characters get hit, including Theron’s Boughton, there’s pain to pay, and the audience itself is out of breath by the end.
On the other hand, Theron can out-sex-appeal any secret agent in any movie, which creates an interesting dichotomy to the film. McAvoy is effective as the dissolute Percival so you’re never sure which game he’s playing until close to the climax of the film. It’s good to see Sofia Boutella play a realistic and sympathetic character here, after her Odd Job with legs role in Kingsman: The Secret Service, her heavily-made-up turn in Star Trek Beyond, and of course her mummy-issues with Tom Cruise.
While James Bond remains a bastion of unrepentant paternalism, the old “weakest sex” trope is dying away (albeit slower than it should). I think if Bond and Broughton went up against each other, my money would be on Broughton to walk away the winner.