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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Atomic Blonde, Review by Siraj Syed: Blonde, Lorraine Blonde

Atomic Blonde, Review by Siraj Syed: Blonde, Lorraine Blonde

“Bond, James Bond” is the most famous self-introduction in spy movie history, courtesy Sean Connery playing Ian Fleming’s Cold War time British secret agent 007. Fifty-five years on, Charlize Theron has picked a graphic novel by Anthony Johnston to invent herself as Lorraine (blonde) Broughton, the present day ‘equivalent’ of not only Bond, but John Wick and Jason Bourne, with a dash of Mad Max, severely shaken and violently stirred. Maybe it is this fusion that has prompted the makers to title their film Atomic Blonde, since there is nothing atomic at the nucleus of the film.

Besides guns, cameras and microphones (“UHF devices”), there are no fancy gadgets at the disposal of the secret agents, a là Q’s armoury, which are Bond’s de rigueur tools of trade. The film works largely on the staccato bursts of calisthenics from Theron’s limbs, and a few improvised weapons. With just a little co-operation of your grey matter overseeing suspension of disbelief, you will find the fights edge-of-your seat thrilling, however one-sided. Such graphically choreographed action deserved better writing than is on offer, but we can make do with the available ambience and pace.

It is 1989 and the countdown to the breaking of Berlin’s East (Communist)-West (Capitalist) wall has begun. Even as American President Ronald Reagan goes on TV to pronounce the impending collapse, British MI6 agent James Gasciogne is chased, confronted and killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin in Berlin. Bakhtin steals from him the List, on a microfilm, that contains the names of every active British field agent in the Soviet Union.

After Gasciogne's death, top-notch agent and fighting machine Lorraine Broughton is despatched to Berlin, to recover the List, and to bring back/assassinate Satchel, a British double agent, who has sold intelligence to the Soviets for years, and who betrayed Gasciogne. In Berlin, she is received by two KGB agents working for arms dealer and KGB associate Aleksander Bremovych, but pretending to represent MI6’s Berlin head, Percival. Realising the trap, she attacks the escort and the driver. Although there are several vehicles following them, Lorraine manages to escape, after a thrilling car chase.

Soon afterwards, Lorraine encounters Delphine Lasalle, a naive French agent pretending to be a translator, and has a lesbian encounter with her. Bakhtin goes to an undercover operative, a watch-dealer, and declares his intention to sell the List to the highest bidder. Percival, having been tipped off, kills him and takes the List. He then meets Bremovych, which Lasalle photographs. Percival offers to escort the ‘would be’ defector who stole and memorised the List, a most wanted Stasi (East German Secret Service) officer code-named Spyglass, across the border, to West Berlin.

Act of Valor, 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire writer Kurt Johnstad moves from classic heroes to modern action heroine with Atomic Blonde. There’s no back story for the heroine, and none is needed. In an attempt to show how far spies go in order to achieve their objectives, Johnstad weaves in a lesbian sexual encounter. Bond, remember, sticks to hetero-sexual ones, often in the line of duty. Proceedings do get confusing, what with single, double and, hold your breath, triple agents. There are also several sides to the equation: MI6, America, East German Police, Stasi, KGB, a Swedish collaborator and an arms dealer. Percival comes across as an oddball character, singing odes to Berlin and mouthing an out-of-place voice over monologue at a crucial point near the climax. Some of the combats would have ended post-haste had the bad guys just shot their victims instead of employing less efficient methods of felling their quarry. Whether Johnston had it in the book or Johnstad conceived it, the umbrella act is a bravo moment.

After co-directing John Wick with Chad Stahelski, David Leitch gets his independent break with Atomic Blonde. He had to opt out of the Wick 2 episode to do duty here. Stahelski is handling Wick 2 alone. Blonde is chic, stylish and racy, with the non-action segments just about balancing the pyrotechnics. Narrating the film in a series of flashbacks, as shared by Lorraine, deposing in front of her superiors and an American official, is a time-beaten device used in a gimmicky way. There is only one real twist to it, and that comes in the end.

Leitch gets excellent support from his SFX, VFX and Stunt teams, cases in point being the car chases, the stiletto, the cork-screw jugular and the rubber-hose improvisation scenes. There is no relief in terms of humour or intimacy, barring the homosexual scenes, which went out of the window in India, thanks to India’s Central Board of Film Certification. The same CBFC has let the oodles of blood and gore pass. Wonder if any plot points were thrown out along with steam, like the proverbial baby with the bath-water.

Producer as well, Charlize Theron (South Africa born; Snow-White and the Huntsman, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Huntsman: Winter’s War) takes her role as hard-drinking, hard smoking Lorraine very, very seriously. She trained and trained, and broke a tooth while training for a clenched teeth fight. Many of her stunt scenes appear to have been done by her, and not by doubles. Her body is slim and still well-toned. Comfortable in skimpy dresses, she carries them well, without oozing oomph. Being blonde or not is not relevant to the film, and she even uses wigs of other hair colours in some scenes. If there is a sequel, Charlize appears competent to carry it off.

The Last King of Scotland, X-Men and Victor Frankenstein actor James McAvoy comes from Scotland, as does his accent, which did pose a few hurdles to this writer. It is a meaty, albeit complex and ill-defined role, and he still seems at home. Eddie Marsan makes a fidgety, terrified Spyglass, notwithstanding his dangerous circumstance. Acts well, though. Algerian Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek: Beyond) as Delphine is the eyeful eye candy, most of it snatched away by the CBFC. Her decisive confrontation with Percival needed better writing.

Lorraine’s interrogators are played by diminutive Toby Jones and good old John Goodman (the American), while a bald James Faulkner watches from behind the mirror. Adequate support comes from Bill Skarsgård as Merkel, Broughton’s local assistant in Berlin, Sam Hargrave as James Gasciogne, Roland Møller as Aleksander Bremovych and Til Schweiger as The Watchmaker.

Jonathan Sela’s camera is at the right place at the right time, and the mood lighting of scenes at Lorraine’s home is appealing. Editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir makes sure the images do not stay on the screen longer than necessary. Tyler Bates (300, Guardians of the Galaxy, John Wick) uses tracks from the specific period, both originals and remixes, comprising electronic dance music (EDM), hard rock, heavy metal and pop. Tracks include 99 (Red) Balloons and Blue Monday.

Atomic Blonde had more potential than it has tapped, yet it offers a serviceable dose of high-end action, enough to merit a visit to the cinema. Those who dig the genre have enough to be kept engaged.

You won’t be able to keep a count of the bodies, bullets or other ballistics, so don’t even bother. And keep safe distance from the far-from-dumb blonde, whose weapons, customary blonde beauty excepted, are no less atomic than a bomb.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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