Pulp /’pəlp/ n. 1. A soft, moist, shapeless mass of matter
2. A magazine or book containing lurid subject matter and being characteristically printed on rough, unfinished paper
Obviously, the above quote is most famous as the opening line to Pulp Fiction, and it works excellently as an opening to a film designed to deconstruct the classic tropes of a genre. However, if you want to see the true definition of pulp, boiled down into its purest concentrated form in all the right ways, then check out Atomic Blonde. Blonde is a smart, fun film that knows exactly why audiences see pulpy spy thrillers in the first place: for entertaining fights, sexy agents, and killer scores. And the fact that the film not only checks all of these boxes with a big permanent marker and allows it to prove that Charlize Theron can do anything a man can, backwards and in heels, makes this one of the most entertaining films of the year.
It’s 1989, and the Cold War is coming to an end. The Western Allies and the Soviet Union have agreed to take down the Berlin Wall and end their acts of aggression, but nobody’s told the spies working inside the city. After MI6 agent James Gasciogne is assassinated on a mission to retrieve a list of names of every active agent and double agent in Berlin, MI6 heads C (James Faulkner) and Eric Gray (Toby Jones) send in their top agent, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to bring home the list or, failing that, rescue the Stasi defector who created it, Spyglass (Eddie Marsan). She teams up with David Percival (James McAvoy), a Berlin station agent who has “gone native,” as an elaborate game of backstabbing and betrayal plays out on both sides of the wall.
One of the biggest – nay, the only major critique of Atomic Blonde is the story. People have criticized the plot for being too convoluted, too simplistic, and overall, too dumb. And to that I say…yes. Right on the money. The plot in this movie doesn’t make much sense and is otherwise extraneous. However, I’d argue that that’s the point. In pulpy spy films, the plot is supposed to be extraneous, simply getting the main character from cool location to cool location, in the hopes that they’ll do something cool. No James Bond plot holds up under scrutiny. Jason Bourne films have some of the most convoluted and unnecessary plot twists ever put on film. And any pulp spy novel, from Red Sparrow to the works of James Patterson, knows that the plot needs only to be strong enough to forward the protagonist, and can get by on a killer twist. So the fact that Atomic Blonde’s plot is kind of silly doesn’t matter in the long run; indeed, all it does is cement its status as a modern pulp masterpiece.
However, if the plot in a pulp spy thriller is going to be irrelevant, then you need to nail the aesthetic perfectly. I mean, audiences can turn a blind eye to the plot of a Bond film, but we still want bright colors in dazzling locales with beautiful people and a killer score. Luckily, first time director David Leitch knows exactly what to do behind the camera. He’s studied the world of the pulp action, and he’s encaptured it perfectly. He’s dressed the drab world of Berlin in greys and blacks, but he lightens it with a dazzling neon glow, creating a gorgeous, fun mise-en-scène. He’s carefully choreographed everything, from the comedy to the drama to the sex scenes. Each is played like a lesson in how to film such sequences, and have clearly borrowed from the best of British and German spy cinema. Perhaps my favorite detail of the entire film, and the one that helped me get onboard with it so quickly, is the soundtrack. You see, since the film is set in 1989 Berlin, and the early eighties techno and electro-pop scene didn’t make it there until that time, the film is set (and often choreographed) to those classic rockers and one-hit wonders that made up the decade. And wouldn’t you know it, those are a few of my favorite genres. Several of my favorite songs make appearances in the film, and set to key sequences of pure bliss, including: “I Ran,” “Under Pressure,” “Der Kommisar,” “The Politics of Dancing,” “London Calling,” and especially “99 Luftballons.” These aspects all work together to create a very specific pulpy aesthetic for the film. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s one of my favorite aesthetics, because it’s just good clean fun.
You’ll notice up to this point, I haven’t talked much about the action. Well, that’s because I wanted to give it its own paragraph, because it wholeheartedly deserves one. I use no hyperbole and make no exaggerations when I make the following claim: This is the new high water mark for action. I’m not joking, this film has changed the game, in the same way that Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and The Matrix once did. I haven’t seen anything like it. If there was ever a film to make the case that the shaky cam fight sequences that have been all the rage for the past ten years were a bad thing for cinema, this is it. Everything is shot so cleanly and crisply, we are allowed to witness each carefully choreographed punch, kick, slash, and smack. Each plays out in a perfectly timed ballet of action in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. What’s more, the clear imagery allows us to see, without a doubt (ok, CGI means a little doubt), that the 42-year-old Theron is the one dealing out the punches, leaping, thrusting, and rolling with each blow. That’s pretty damn impressive. I also love the little detail they’ve added where the characters become winded and bloodied during the course of the fight. Any boxing match or MMA fight shows you that two minutes of strenuously exerting yourself in a quest to hurt someone else will leave you gasping for air. Imagine doing it for extended periods, where the goal is not to score points, but to kill the opponent before he kills you. You’d walk away with more than one drop of sweat and a nifty cut above the eye. These fights seem like they have actual consequences (as can be seen in the opening scene, set after these action sequences, where a naked Theron sits in a tub of ice and nursing a bruised and bloodied body that looks like its seen years of combat), and when combined with Leitch’s new and exciting eye, I don’t see how this film doesn’t change the action game permanently.
Two sequences in particular stand out in my mind, and could qualify for any list of great action sequences individually. The first, and perhaps my favorite, is a scene set inside a small apartment scored to George Michael’s “Father Figure.” Not only is it incredibly innovative, but I’m a sucker for great action sequences choreographed to pop songs. However, if I’m being honest, that sequence doesn’t hold a candle to the Stairway Sequence. Already becoming the stuff of legends, the sequence is an uninterrupted eight-minute take following a trapped Theron up an elevator shaft to the floor the KGB agents have set up on. Without a single cut to let the audience catch their breath, the film follows Theron back down the stairs, picking up whatever weapons she can to continue her assault on the assassins, ranging from discarded pistols to knives to broken glass. Anything she can get her hands on becomes a weapon, and if she can’t find anything…well, the more beautiful brutality for us, the viewers. This is a one-take on par with the opening to Gravity and the hallway in Oldboy in terms of its breathless barrage of action, and you can bet that this is a sequence that will be taught to stunt doubles and coordinators for years to come.
It’s useless to talk about the cast of this movie, because it lives, dies, and rests at the feet of Charlize Theron. Theron owns every frame of this movie, from beginning to end. She’s stunning, commanding, smart, cunning, funny, cool, and sexy, all at the same time. That’s a hard combination to pull off, and yet she does it so effortlessly. She’s been called the “female James Bond” for her performance, but I feel like that’s something of a disservice. Sure, there’s some accuracy in comparing the sexy-cool agent of Bond to Theron’s Broughton, but whereas Bond is sexy because he’s Bond, and the actor playing him doesn’t really matter, Broughton is all of those things because she’s Charlize Theron. It’s a commanding performance, and one that truly establishes that we have seriously underestimated her as an actress, and that she is truly capable of anything. However, I do want to give some shout-outs to other worthwhile actors who pop up throughout the movie. I very much dug whatever it was James McAvoy was doing in this movie, if only because he dedicated himself to it so wholeheartedly. It was simultaneously idiotic, yet sexy, which can pretty much sum up the past six years of McAvoy’s career. I also thought that Sofia Boutella gave a star-making turn as Delphine Lasalle, something of the film’s Bond Girl, and she absolutely redeemed herself after the atrocious Mummy. Marsan brings something of a humanistic heart to the movie, and Toby Jones and John Goodman are excellent in everything, so I won’t spend too much time beating their respective dead horses.
No, Atomic Blonde is not a perfect movie. It’s a dumb spy thriller straight out of the eighties. However, it’s an expertly done spy thriller, one that draws on the history of pulp to build its unique and endearing world. When you have action sequences that are this groundbreaking and a star that is this magnetic, you have me onboard. And when you combine it with a stunning aesthetic and pounding eighties soundtrack…you may be gilding the lily, but maybe I like the lily this way.