This post contains minor spoilers for Atomic Blonde
As a series of flashy title cards that show up at the beginning of the movie helpfully explain to the audience, Atomic Blonde is not the story of how on November 9th 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. However, it shouldn’t take a savvy viewer long to figure out that such a definitive denial is probably a covert confirmation. Sure enough, the film’s narrative eventually arrives at that 9th of November, juxtaposing this monumental event in history with scenes of Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton at her lowest point. Most other movies would probably be content to weave their own stories into such a historical setting, but Atomic Blonde goes one step further. The setting of Cold War-era Berlin is so deeply ingrained in its story, the setting itself fulfills the role of main antagonist.
As clichéd a stock phrase “City X in movie X is like a character in itself!” has become, it’s unquestionably true in this case. Berlin bustles with life in a way that most of the actual characters don’t. It’s in the small background details, like the bits and pieces of protest graffiti that pop up in crucial scenes, but also in the way the city’s drabness clashes with the garish neon aesthetic the movie uses for its title and location cards. That’s also the main reason why nearly every part of the movie that does not take place in Berlin feels like a drag. Every moment not spent in the German capital – a city that director David Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstand have made equally enticing and hellish – feels like a moment wasted.
While viewers might enjoy their time spent in the city, the movie’s characters certainly don’t. Lorraine describes her time there as being like “One of those movies where the screen freezes and then slowly starts melting away and catches fire.” On the other hand, the movie’s other central character, James McAvoy’s out of control agent David Percival, has become a little too accustomed to life in the torn-apart city. Lorraine’s MI6 superior describes him as simply having “gone a bit native” during his time as a station chief in the city, but his superior chooses not to mince words: “He’s gone fucking feral.” Percival seems to enjoy himself running around underground parties at skate parks and doing back-alley deals, but there’s always a hint that he’s just buried himself too deep in this mess to crawl back out of it.
Percival’s not the only one the city has had a tragic effect on. Take Sofia Boutella’s Delphine Lasalle, a young French spy who took this assignment because it seemed like fun. The city quickly begins wearing down on her. In her early scenes, Boutella plays the character as an enthusiastic child, eagerly saving Lorraine from unwanted conversations and inviting her to her friend’s club. Delphine quickly discovers that she’s in way over her head, cumulating in the much-derided (and admittedly rather misguided) way that her character arc is ultimately resolved. Another victim of the city is Spyglass, played by the always reliable Eddie Marsan. A Stasi defector who stole a microfilm containing the names of every active agent in the Soviet Union. All Spyglass wants is safety for him and his family, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in this kind of movie, and in this version of Berlin, that doesn’t come easy.
So forget about generic Russian bad guys, the real antagonistic force driving Atomic Blonde’s plot is the city of Berlin itself. Being there is either life-threatening for the characters, or it brings out their worst impulses. Or, as the movie suggests might be the case with Lorraine, both of those things. In the third act, after the plot has tied itself up in so many knots that whoever the actual human antagonist is meant to be shifts every five minutes, Berlin’s antagonistic presence becomes even more pronounced (and welcome). Suffice to say that when a certain character loudly exclaims they “fucking LOVE Berlin!”, it does not speak well of their personality.
Ultimately, while Atomic Blonde’s overly complicated story may falter as a hardboiled spy tale about a missing microfilm, it succeeds as the story of several individuals trapped in a doomed and hellish city. When the wall falls, that doesn’t mean victory for the film’s characters; for Lorraine, Percival etc. this historical event quickly becomes nothing more than another knot in an already extremely tangled web. Even the city itself doesn’t seem to particularly much about the historic significance of the event, as a news broadcast is quickly interrupted by a tv-report about the legal issues concerning sampling in music. The film suggests that Percival might not be the only one who’s dug himself in too deep; that might be true of the entire city.
At the end of Martin McDonagh’s black comedy-classic In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s depressed hitman Ray exasperatedly remarks: “Fuck, man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges” After what the city puts them through, it would not have felt surprising or out of place to have heard a similar remark about Berlin come out of the mouths of any of Atomic Blonde’s central characters.