ATOMIC BLONDE

Coldest City, The

**** (out of five)

There are some movies you just can’t imagine with a different actor in the leading part. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, On The Waterfront, Raging Bull. The central performance carries these films, bears all their weight. So it is with Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, and she is magnificent. She lifts a very good action spy thriller into another echelon entirely by her total commitment, professionalism, ability and class.

You’ve never been this up close and personal with Theron. From her introduction, bathing her bruised – seriously bruised, like seventy percent of her body bruised – naked body in an ice-bath, to lingering, ravishing close-ups – one of them dwells for what might be ten seconds on just one of her eyes – to an emotional complexity completely unexpected for a noirish, often brutal, hyper-stylised graphic novel adaptation – she is present in a fundamentally and startlingly raw, exposed, intimate way. I’m quite taken aback by how strongly her performance moved me.

Of course, I shouldn’t be. Theron is brilliant. She has an Oscar for Monster, and her performance in Mad Max Fury Road last year likewise fused serious emotional heft and dramatic depth to the iron lung of that impeccable machine. But Atomic Blonde is being billed as a “fight” picture – which it is, and a superlative one – and the striking performance fuelling and stoking it, in every moment of every scene (including the fight scenes, which depict pain and weariness with great respect) is not what’s being touted on the posters.

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Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a British spy on a mission in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the wall. The plot is convoluted – unnecessarily so – but it’s got a clear and satisfying payoff, so don’t worry if you get lost along the way (I did). The various spies, scoundrels and schemers she encounters are played – amongst others – by James McEvoy, Eddie Marian, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones and John Goodman – but none commit, or land, with Theron’s intensity. It’s her movie and she makes the movie.

Of course, David Leitch actually directed the movie, working from a script by Kurt Johnstad and Antony Johnston (who wrote the source graphic novel, The Coldest City), but the intimacy and depth of his collaboration with Theron is ever-present. She obviously trusted him every step of the way, and in doing so, allowed herself to be complicit in his fetishisation of her. She is photographed through the prism of, if not the male gaze, then the sexual gaze, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Lorraine offers something for almost everyone, whatever your angle, whatever the kink. If you’re into S&M, that’s right there on the surface for you, including all those romantic, lingering shots of Lorraine’s bruised, naked body. But if you’ve got a thing for boots, a lust for leather, a penchant for wigs, feet, trampling (yep), stiletto heels (this is a movie that understands every layer of meaning involved in using a red high heeled shoe as a weapon)… even if you’ve got a smoking fetish, it’s all here. Lorraine smokes a lot in this film, and, like everything else, it’s shot to make you hot.

Elsewhere – once the camera reluctantly slips from Theron’s cheekbones – there is plenty of terrific design. This is a Berlin 1989 via every music clip you’ve ever seen from the period, with a dash of Blade Runner, a smattering of The Matrix, and a hefty dose of Nicolas Winding Refn. Light may come from unexplained sources, but it’s there for a purpose – it’s there to sculpt Theron. This is stylisation and as far removed from reality as science fiction. That said, it’s got its thigh-high booted feet far more planted in reality than John Wick, Leitch’s other major work (in which Keanu Reeves also made himself very, very ready for his close-up). When McEvoy’s character makes a speech that clearly pays homage to Richard Burton’s classic monologue toward the end of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it feels honourable rather than insulting. There is respect for the period here, even if a history lesson this is not.

Finally, the soundtrack is insane. Practically wall-to-wall, it’s got every Cold War 80s song and then some. As with Baby Driver, the action scenes were clearly conceived with their accompanying songs in mind; unlike that film, you’ll know all the songs here, and some will be your all-time faves. (For the record, I preferred this film to Baby Driver, with which it shares many qualities.)

I was mesmerised by Atomic Blonde; I hope it spawns sequels (there is a prequel graphic novel, The Coldest Winter). I will follow Lorraine on any misadventure she cares to indulge in, and hope to get bruised along the way.

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MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Banner-Charlize-Theron-Tom-Hardy ***** (out of five)

It was only about six or seven minutes into Mad Max: Fury Road that I knew that I’d be seeing it again in a matter of days. It was a couple of minutes after that when I realised that this film was going to look freaking spectacular in 3-D (I was watching it traditionally). I was already getting excited for my second viewing not ten minutes into my first. Fury Road is everything you want from a Mad Max film. It’s got the action, the cars and the characters; more importantly, in allegiance with the first three films – and especially The Road Warrior, the classic of the series – it’s got the weird vernacular, the Australian-ness, and the complete commitment to its own unique and totally insane universe. It may have cost a studio hundreds of millions of dollars, but it still feels home-grown, hand-made, and completely deviant.

George Miller, supposedly directing not from a script but from 3,500 storyboards he has created over the last decades with Brendan McCarthy (2000 AD), Mark Sexton and Peter Pound, has delivered one of the most kinetic, energetic, vibrant and thrilling action movies ever made. Like Gravity of a couple of years ago, and Avatar before that, Fury Road is a game changer, one of those films that has your jaw on the floor and your head spinning as you wonder just how in the world this thing possibly got made.

Don’t listen to the already often repeated cliché that it’s a two hour car chase. Like any good movie, Fury Road has its ebbs and flows, a three act structure, and a storyline to be excited by and characters to care about. There is emotion, there are gargantuan stakes, and a very moving emotional connection is made between Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).

The plot is simple but elegant. Alone in the wasteland, Max is kidnapped and brought to the Citadel run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played The Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Joe’s lead driver Furiosa is about to head off and make a fuel run. In these opening moments of the film we see a fully realised world that could only have been created by George Miller (and must have been driving him mad for the many years it took him to get them from his brain onto our screens). Every simple cutaway shot, every prop, every strange growl and weird squeak reveals a richly textured and highly specific cinematic universe.

Furiosa is meant to travel to Gas Town, but she has other plans. She’s stolen something very valuable to Joe and he’s pissed. A massive chase party is established and Max is used within it in a particularly ghoulish way. The stage is set, the chase is on, and 200 unique, incredible, mind-boggling vehicles careen across the desert.

The stunt work is astonishing: mind-blowing, game-changing, unbelievable. But there is so much more to the film. The depth of connection able to be achieved between the characters in the midst of all this mayhem is beautiful – as is the look of the film (the spectacular cinematography is by John Seale, who will be getting an Oscar nomination, mark my words). It has been graded (colour corrected) phenomenally; the reds of the desert and the blues of the sky; the cast of Charlize Theron’s face; the blacks and greys of the vehicles and the bad guys – it’s a little richer and more vibrant than real life; it’s a comic book, a fantasy. It looks brilliant.

Hardy’s Max is perfect. For the first half he’s not very proactive, but in the second he gets to make choices, offer solutions and figure himself out a little bit – and it works. His relationship with Theron’s Furiosa is not just surprising but touching. They’re two lost souls uniting in a form of heroism. Don’t worry – there’s nothing mushy; it’s much more Mad Max than that. Miller doesn’t do mushy, but he respects his characters and gives them hearts and souls, damaged as they may be.

Theron is fierce as you might expect, but also vulnerable and multi-faceted. Furiosa has an agenda and it’s all about women. The last act of the film gives us a panoply of older female characters with weapons, and using them. It’s fun, it’s kinda feminist, and it’s far more moving than any of the trailers could’ve possibly led you to guess.

Miller is up there with Kubrick, Spielberg, Cameron and Jackson as one of the great conceptualists working on the largest possible scale. This film is the work of a singular balls-to-the-wall visionary. About two thirds of the way through I thought, gosh, if Miller happened to pass away at any time during this film’s production process (he was 70 during principal photography) there is no-one who could’ve finished it – at least not like this. Essentially the script is his brain. He has claimed that there are two more ready to go. Let’s get rolling, people!

For dedicated adherents to the Book of Max, this film falls firmly into the canon. Tom Hardy is playing Max – not his son, not someone else called Max – and this film definitely takes place after the first three. It’s a continuation of  that universe, absolutely. There are many shout outs / Easter eggs / references / sly winks at the first three films – in fact so many that I could watch it a third time just to check up on all of those.

You know what? I will. Of its type this film is bloody perfect, and I’ll be seeing a lot of it.