One of the most circulated pieces of women’s self-defense advice is misinformation. When walking alone at night, you should never tuck your keys between your fingers as protection. Under attack, the keybearer is more likely to shatter multiple fingers than they are to slice up an assailant; they also risk losing or mangling a door key, further impeding access to safety. In lieu of deploying “key knuckles,” self-defense teachers recommend gripping keys hammer- or knife-style.
This truth, like so many, runs counterpoint to our cultural and muscle memory. Regardless of reality, there’s comfort in sliding each cold, nickel silver key between the soft flesh and bone slots of a hand. It feels as good as a glove. For women and effeminate-types, this is a way of arming up for one’s role in a conflict far longer than the Cold War; one in defense of our genders’ right to exist, wherever, whenever, whatever. When we key knuckle, we are taking part in tradition. We fall into place in the long line of folks who’ve done this through the decades. True or not, the hand folds into a clenched fist, the keyer experiences a rare sense of total readiness.
Living on a lie but knowing how to use it, she moves onward.
In Atomic Blonde, stuntman-turned-director David Leitch tinkers with the feminist key knuckle lie, smugly vindicating it. In the days leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, MI6 Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) flies to West Berlin to help rogue British intelligence agent David Percival (James McAvoy) find a comprehensive list of every spy stationed in Berlin. In regions where western influence meets aggressive eastern dictatorship, corruption has always thrived, taking all kinds. Such is the case here. The most pressing contact on the misplaced list is Satchel, a British double agent who has been taking afternoon tea with a side of Soviet barbarism. As Broughton gathers the nerve to hop the Wall to meet a contact in the East who knows Satchel’s identity, she’s trailed by three KGB brutes who are also vying for the list.
Fatigued and wary, Broughton does what anyone looking to escape a grim reality would do: she goes to the movies. The spy’s detour into a showing of Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi movie Stalker (another Cold War era tale about the physical and philosophical walls that divide people) climaxes in her taking on three KGB grunts in front of the screen, Stalker’s cast of similarly sad characters projecting across the agents’ thick bodies; it’s a nice moment, art house taking blockbuster action’s hand in an inter-genre marriage.
But for Broughton, it’s a close call. She successfully rams a key through a KGB cheek before escaping the picture show. Its ring dangles humorously from his surprised expression; the other keys tinkle like a windchime.
Atomic Blonde is a fun, new wave-backed study of the masterful liar. In real life, these are called sociopaths, politicians, exes. In cinema, they are action heroes. Broughton hasn’t earned her keep in intelligence by being fluent in Russian and the five point palm exploding heart technique, but by being a 1.) woman who 2.) knows to maneuver information; if you are the former, misogyny dictates that the latter is an impossibility. Time after time, male chauvinism — not tactical superiority — is her opponent’s downfall. “Every false intel I gave you, a rip in the Iron Curtain. Every piece of intel you gave me, a bullet in my fucking gun,” Broughton tells one unlucky fellow. Theron, 5’10 before the Dior stilettos, makes for a convincing spy. Her “girl with a gun” potential was realized in the 2003 remake of Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job; the queer cult status would come later that year with Patty Jenkins’ Aileen Wuornos biopic, Monster. 14 years is quite the while; it’s good to have her back.
We begin Atomic Blonde from the end, with Broughton being interrogated by her aged male higher-ups in London after her Berlin mission has flopped. Viewers catch the sleuth’s inconsistencies, her curt voiceovers regularly disagreeing with the flashbacks. Broughton’s motives gradually become visible. Yet we never see her crack.
As the story unravels, we learn that Percival, despite the “Sinead O’Connor haircut” that helps him pass in the East and wiretapping skills that help him stay a step ahead of allied spies in the West, is Broughton’s antithesis. He regularly slips up in casual conversation, playing dumb now only to contradict himself later. 30 minutes in, Broughton realizes they are anything but a team. Acquiring the list — embedded in a wristwatch and the brain of an East German officer (Eddie Marsan) who’s seeking asylum in the West — quickly becomes the least of her concerns. Along with dealing with Percival and the Soviets, she’s being stalked by an agent provocatrice in Agent Provocateur, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).
Plenty of creative liberty was taken when adapting Antony Johnston’s somber graphic novel The Coldest City into a feature. Black ink on white paper have been replaced with graffiti and neon. A sign in a club, cleverly noting that EVERYTHING YOU WANT IS ON THE OTHER SIDE, hums above the patrons. The fight scenes, Leitch’s drug of choice, are choreographed, multiplied, and Steadicam’d (sometimes exhausting the viewer as much as the combatants). Percival’s 20 years younger and has lost just about as many inches around his waist; his humble Volkswagen has also been traded for a Porsche. Thanks to costume designer Cindy Evans (August: Osage County, Thirteen), Broughton, once perfectly content in her sensible London-tailored suits and modest heels, now kicks ass in Balmain and John Galliano. The ‘blonde’ in Atomic Blonde, referencing a pageboy wig the brunette spy dons in the novel’s final act, becomes permanent in the feature. She downs Stoli with such frequency that I figure Atomic Blonde paid for its five-star soundtrack in product placement (a little clue for prospective viewers: it’s the ice that inevitably makes the drink). Speaking of the slickly-integrated tunes, we are all punked by the absence of an obvious song: Blondie’s “Atomic”.
Atomic Blonde’s flashy deception is a good thing. It is a balm that soothes the burning realization that, in 2017, with no shortage of headlines about nuclear weapons, small Southern state politicians’ cozying up to 45, and suits colluding with Russia, we’re not too far removed from the dire grit of Cold War.
It also benefits the queer viewer.
In lieu of of a happy, heterosexual romantic conclusion, Atomic Blonde affords us something we’re already versed in: a tragic sapphic one. Pierre Lasalle, the Algerian French intelligence agent who is trailing Broughton because of her connection to another spy, is gender-swapped, becoming Delphine.
This connection, in true Leitch fashion, begins as a fight scene. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Broughton has Lasalle pinned to a wall in a nightclub when she discovers a revolver hidden the small of her back. Everything — small arsenals, clothing, and true identities, are inevitably kicked off their ankles. Later, ’Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” a one-hit wonder that was originally written about a taboo relationship between two women, makes multiple appearances. Lasalle mopes around in headphones, humming, smoking pot, and developing the damning photos that will live on after her death and inevitably save Broughton.
Some, electing to focus more on narrative templates than genre, will call this classic exploitation. If that’s the case, I would like major studio releases to exploit me endlessly; it gives me great pleasure. I was sore, for example, with Wonder Woman’s refusal to give viewers Diana’s trademark, indisputably canon exclamation of “Suffering Sappho!” My only gripe with the way Atomic Blonde handles Lasalle is that she was a stronger character when male; his honor gets downgraded to her thinly-written naïveté. While we’re still mortal, let’s embrace our spines. Spare me the queers that are unburied and pure. They are as much of a myth as our keys between the knuckles.
In the weeks following its release, Atomic Blonde has incited conversations on whether or not a female Bond is future possibility. Perhaps that question is a codification of another: Will women and effeminate people ever be able to fantasize, like men, about the impossible without encountering a wall, be it self-imposed or crafted by oppressive forces? If Lorraine Broughton could take a stance, it would be: stop asking permission.