Note: this piece contains spoilers.
As someone who grew up watching James Bond and Mission: Impossible with my dad and brother, I have a penchant for dumb action movies. So I am very excited that a film like Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and jam-packed with exciting and tightly choreographed fight sequences, exists. But the film also goes to show that even a feminist movie can get held up by the same tropes it’s subverting.
Atomic Blonde didn’t have the most phenomenal box office opening, as it was trumped by Girl’s Trip and Dunkirk, as well as the universally roasted Emoji Movie. But with an $18.6 million domestic opening, the low-budget Atomic Blonde still packed a punch.
As for the movie itself: it’s the perfect sleek, neon-lit, car-chasin’, guns blazin’, vodka-downing, cigarette-perpetually-lighting, ridiculous summer romp. Sure, the premise is a bit loose, and may as well have been an ad for wide-leg Editor Pants and ironic-in-hindsight interpretations of 80s songs. Atomic Blonde isn’t just a dumb action movie—it’s a very good dumb action movie that boasts some excellent fight scenes and reminds us that it is also important to have female action movies that can just be solid and fun. Not every female action film has to be a mind-blowing treatise on femininity, or part of a multi-billion dollar global franchise like Wonder Woman, no matter how spectacularly that film met the sky-high expectations that had been set for it.
Part of the genius of this film is watching Theron pull off the fight scenes and stunts with both the fluidity of intense training and a labored resourcefulness that feels true to life. When it comes to action movies, the audience is not meant to question a male action hero taking out a dozen henchmen, and yet the bodies and abilities of heroines are constantly questioned and are given other elements (like the classic female villain) because apparently women who fight are simply too unbelievable. Atomic Blonde sidesteps this by simply giving us realistic fight sequences and showing the consequences of them.
Theron’s character Lorraine fights hoards of men, but two at a time, developing a signature cadence of sorts. By the end of the final fight scene, Lorraine and her opponent are both so beat up (by each other), they can barely stand up for more than just a few seconds, a humorous visual that makes the fight scene a bit more realistic and all the more gripping and empowering. The two have physically depleted each other, and all that’s left is willpower and tenacity.
But the aftermath of these fights are almost as empowering as the fights themselves. Seeing Lorraine carry the very painful-looking bruises she suffered from her exploits demonstrates the human vulnerability that the film’s more macho counterparts avoid.
But while Atomic Blonde is mostly a success as a feminist action film, it can’t quite escape some of the most tired tropes of the testosterone-centric genre. (Spoilers ahead.) In the worst part of the movie, James McAvoy’s villainous Percival kills Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a French agent and Lorraine’s very recent lover. For a movie that is filled to the brim with death, hers is somehow both lengthy and reductive, with Percival strangling the lace-underwear-clad Delphine to death with a cord.
I suppose her death is supposed to be the last straw for Lorraine, even though the film spent the previous two hours convincing us that relationships, especially Lorraine and Delphine’s, mean nothing and death is part of being a spy. I get it! It’s a spy movie and love interests never last long in spy movies (take, for example, pretty much any given Bond Girl). But given Hollywood’s long illustrious romance with killing off gay characters, Delphine’s death strikes a depressingly familiar note.
Even so, despite this very annoying plot twist, Atomic Blonde proves (for the millionth time) that women can make fierce, aggressive, and capable action stars, worthy of helming the same fairly thin action movie plots we’re used to seeing all the damn time.