This American action thriller is based loosely on the 2012 novel, “The Coldest City”, by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart. It tells the story of a female spy ordered by her British superiors to retrieve a list of double agents at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is a period when superpower alliances were under enormous pressure to hide their identity in their desperate search to know what the other is doing.
Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a top-level agent working for MI6 and she is asked by Eric Gray (Toby Jones), her MI6 superior, to go to Berlin to penetrate an espionage ring that has murdered an undercover agent for reasons unknown. The CIA is in contact with MI6, and what everyone wants – including Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Moller), a Russian-German arms dealer – is a wrist watch that holds a list of all the double agents working in the West. The list threatens the West’s entire intelligence operations.
In Berlin, Broughton forms an uneasy alliance with David Percival (James McAvoy). She learns quickly that she can trust no one, but in a moment of weakness forms an unfortunate sexual attachment to an undercover French agent, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Theron is strong and formidable, and trusts no one, and hardly ever compromises her cover.
The film is packed full of stylish action sequences that are slickly produced and attention getting. Charlize Theron sets out to offer the viewer a female version of James Bond. The fight scenes between Theron and others in the film (all men) are realistic and enormously convincing. There are plenty of bullets and knives, but most of the action comes through lethal karate chops and kick-blows delivered by Theron, who aggressively plays a male version of a spy, who happens to be female. The visuals in the film photograph the alleyways and streets of Berlin well, and the camera constantly zooms-in to capture the fast pace of the action, and to highlight the effectiveness of the physical stunt work. The action scenes are choreographed extremely well.
Most James Bond and/or Jason Bourne movies deliver a plot with some attempt to reach a final resolution of sorts. But this movie doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t aim to do so. The plot is inconsistent, often confusing, and from the moment we see Theron taking a bath filled with ice cubes, while drinking Vodka on the rocks, we know we are watching the film for the look of things. The film is a hyper-stylised action picture with an ice-cold heroine who is lethal to oppose. She is violent, ruthless, and never ever dresses down for the occasion.
The film has not been made to be consistent or logical. Poised to deliver interesting spy paranoia, the plot line goes further. No single scenario fits well because the film’s intrigues are tangled together. David Leitch, the Director of the film, directs the film as an escapist spy thriller that keeps the viewer guessing from start to finish. The overarching theme of the movie is to keep the viewer involved “by deceiving the deceiver” and it does this very well. When one thinks the puzzle is completed, the movie then turns in on itself and reverses the game play. The conclusion to the game startles, and then startles afresh again by another turn to show an unexpected second or third side to the act of deception. What matters in this movie is that the plot makes sense enough to entertain.
Without Theron, the movie could have failed, but with her, it provides high-octane, superficial, glossy watching that is entertaining, not the least because a strong actress is grabbing style from a spy industry dominated to date by males. And it shows a woman good at the game.
This is undoubtedly Theron’s movie. She shows an unexpected fit with the spy genre, and Leitch has directed a movie that has style, energy, and particularly well-choreographed stunt work.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for film and broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting