In what is already shaping to have been a sort of cinematic golden age, the years between 2015 and 2019 represent a pre-COVID heyday of big screen storytelling we’re only now beginning to appreciate. Not only was the era loaded with excellent silver screen tales and lots of innovative movies, blockbusters and indie gems, but this was also the time when 4K and HDR finally made it to the mainstream. For folks who love their home cinema, Blu-rays from this time offer almost endless options. Sadly, it all came to a grinding halt in 2020, but one can hope for things to pick up again in the near future.
One underrated film from the period is Atomic Blonde. Released in 2017 at the height of the pre-pandemic heyday, David Leitch’s movie offers an unabashed, highly kinetic action thriller set in the twilight of the Cold War, in late 1989. The setting is divided Berlin, and anyone who was around in the 1980s will immediately fall in love with the look and feel of this meticulously-crafted, densely textured picture. The increasingly-rare 4K Blu-ray offers superb visuals and sound and should not be missed by fans of action, smart stories, and gorgeous cinematography, done here by Jonathan Sela, who like director David Leitch has also worked on the John Wick franchise.
Atomic Blonde shows its roots proudly, obviously taking hints from John Wick and prior to that the action movies of the 1990s, notably The Matrix and earlier Hong Kong actioners. But while definitely a violent movie, this one opts for a slightly more realistic approach. There are no wires, and our hero doesn’t take on entire armies without so much as a scratch or even getting tired.
Rather, the Atomic Blonde of the title is Charlize Theron’s very human Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 agent sent to Berlin to retrieve essential intelligence that could turn the tide of the waning Cold War and help establish a new world order. While very tall and athletic, Charlize doesn’t have a lot of mass and so her character, who’s a master assassin and spy, uses everything in the environment during fights and certainly doesn’t fight fair. That’s because all of her opponents are burly KGB agents, especially the excellent Daniel Bernhardt, who you may remember from The Matrix Reloaded, Logan, Blood Sport, and many others. Suffice to say, Atomic Blonde has some of the best fight sequences in cinematic history, and this hasn’t been properly recognized, we believe. It’s not over the top, our protagonist gets visibly demolished by her opponents, everyone bleeds and tires realistically, and so on. This stands in sharp contrast to movies where small men and women take on people several times their size without the aid of weapons or anything else, which isn’t very convincing. None of that here. Lorraine fights dirty if needed and uses everything from hand guns to hot plates to gain the upper hand against physically bigger and stronger adversaries.
The other awesome female spy in the story is done by Sofia Boutella, who’s always excellent and a joy to behold. Her character isn’t as capable as Charlize’s, but she can certainly hold her own. The rest of the cast is masterful as well, from Eddie Marsan as a hapless Stasi defector and James McAvoy as a semi-crazed MI6 deep cover agent, to the bureaucratic interrogator done by the ever-lovable Toby Jones.
Filmed in Berlin and Budapest, Atomic Blonde looks amazing. The crew recreated a very convincing version of 1989 Berlin, down to the wall and no man’s land. The atmosphere is incredible, and the soundtrack goes a long way towards cementing this movie as a proper tribute to the last full decade of the Cold War. Sure, nostalgia comes cheap and easy, but Atomic Blonde takes it to another level with a selection of songs that arrive just in the right moments, plus a strong supporting soundtrack by Tyler Bates, who also worked on John Wick, naturally.
As a tribute to an era and the city that symbolized that period of history arguably more than any other place, Atomic Blonde works like magic. It’s colorful, loaded with beautiful scenes you’ll need a really good projector to appreciate, and the 4K disc offers impeccable fidelity.
We also believe Atomic Blonde’s action-meets-1980s-Berlin helped inspire the successful 2020 Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War, which not only has similar themes, but very similar scenes and music. Yet more evidence that Atomic Blonde is an unsung hero of an influential film. So please, try to do your part for freedom and watch it as soon as you can.