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Violent femmes: Atomic Blonde and Hollywoods new wave of killer women

Charlize Theron stars as a rough-housing MI6 agent, while Jennifer Lawrence and Taraji P Henson are also portraying spies and hit-women. But is it progress to simply feminise the action-film grunt?

Violent women are all the rage this season so long as they are highly trained and impeccably dressed. Charlize Theron is aruthless MI6 agent in Atomic Blonde, Jennifer Lawrence a seductive Russian in Red Sparrow and Taraji P Henson aslick hit-woman for the mob in Proud Mary. At first glance, its encouraging to see three strong female actors leading their own movies in a male-dominated industry. But is this really good news for representations of women on screen?

Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City and is directed by David Leitch, a stunt man and co-director of Keanu Reeves vehicle John Wick, which gives you a fair idea of his priorities. Theron is Lorraine Broughton, a British spy who is sent to Berlin to retrieve a valuable list of agents. Its 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to crumble and so are a host of international hitmen waiting for Broughton to execute them in increasingly inventive ways (the freezer door in the face is a highlight).

Yes, Atomic Blonde is darkly funny in places, and the well-choreographed action is brilliantly performed by Theron, who did most of her own stunts. Its also stylish, in a garish 80s way: think neon-lit hotels rooms, off-the-shoulder jumper dresses and thigh-high boots to a soundtrack including New Order covers and of course Nenas 99 Red Balloons.

But we know as much about our heroine as her opponents do: that she is beautiful, lethal, clever and has araft of secrets. Im no fan of John Wick and his casual collateral damage, but at least he has a nominal backstory. As with any genre, the best female killer thrillers give you a reason to care. We had a run of these in the 90s: Luc Bessons Nikita and its remakes concerned a young convict who was given a choice between death or life as an assassin, and trained up for dangerous jobs (training being an altogether more satisfying type of makeover than your usual montage). The Long Kiss Goodnight saw Geena Davisplaying an amnesic mother suddenly recalling her past as a hit-woman while trying to protect her daughter from her enemies. This was a woman juggling two identities, struggling to come to terms with a revelation that was both thrilling and emotionally engaging. Thematically, this was a precursor to the Bourne films, even if the Bourne novels came first. The Long Kiss Goodnight also managed to work a decent conspiracy story into its plot, while the cold war hokum in Atomic Blonde just seems to get in the way.

Given the nasty nature of killing for a living, it helps to give a character a strong motivation, whether it is coercion, revenge or threat. Angelina Jolie had a tragic past in 2010 thriller Salt, while Jennifer Lawrences Red Sparrow isnt given much choice by handler Charlotte Rampling, who states: If you cannot be of service to the state, Iam to put a bullet through your head. Red Sparrow teaser footage and Jason Matthews source novel suggest more character detail: Lawrence is a ballet dancer who breaks her leg before being recruited. She is trained to determine a targets weakness and exploit that weakness through seduction, then meets a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who will test her allegiances. I usually find Lawrence rather cold, but this may work for the role, and shes teamed with Francis Lawrence, who directed her in three Hunger Games movies.

Geena
Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Proud Mary comes from Babak Najafi, the director of London Has Fallen, which rings a loud warning bell, although the trailer is fun and the premise promises the cosy notion that Marys life is completely turned around when she meets a young boy. It stars Henson, and of course black gun-toting heroines are even rarer than their white counterparts in mainstream movies. (Hence the use of Foxy Brown-style typeface for the films title, reaching back all the way to the rash of female-fronted blaxploitation movies in the 70s.)

So, some points for progression there and points to Atomic Blonde for making its heroines lover a woman (Sofia Boutella), although the sex scene feels like a pop video directed by a man who has been watching Basic Instinct on a loop. As does much of the film, from the sexy smoking in an interrogation room to Therons look, which may also be a nod to Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. (That said, Therons smoky eye makeup is clearly the work of a professional, rather than someone who is too busy or drunk to care.)

The trend-spotting doesnt end there: must-have accessories for these new femmes fatales include blunt blond fringes (Henson dons a wig in the Proud Mary trailer), leather gloves (obvs) and leg warmers and/or thigh-high boots (hey, it gets cold in Germany/Russia/Boston). These women also like a sponsored tipple: Mary swigs from a branded bottle while Broughton is gunning for Bond levels of product placement with her chosen vodka. Standard business for a genre reliant on sex appeal, visual panache and vicarious thrills, but there is little going on in Atomic Blonde beyond the style. Therons physical performance may overcome her dodgy English accent, but its hard to flesh out a heroine who is so frustratingly enigmatic. Meanwhile, her male counterparts, such as James McAvoy, get more screen time than your average female sidekick would.

Atomic Blonde feels like a fantasy film designed for action-film fans, many of whom will be men. For me, the pleasures of watching a woman beat the living daylights out of a series of men are short-lived when there is little emotion behind the combat. Aside from the fact that Broughton is skilled and successful, there is little to admire in a woman who is simply doing her job. Her character has so few distinguishing features, she could be a substitute for a man right down to the womanising. Using stilettos as a weapon hardly qualifies. Is it really empowering to simply feminise the action-film grunt?

In a Hollywood dogged by its fair share of blank action heroes, a blank action heroine is certainly a statistical improvement. But in the year that Wonder Woman showed that female action stars can have a fully fledged backstory and kick ass, Atomic Blonde is something of a letdown. All eyes on Sparrow and Mary to raise the game although, looking further ahead, the smart money is on The Rhythm Section, a Blake Lively espionage thriller thats currently in preproduction with the Bond producers, Eon. Why this one? Its directed by The Handmaids Tale Reed Morano, who just happens to be awoman. Imagine that.

Atomic Blonde is released on 9August

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jul/27/violent-femmes-atomic-blonde-and-hollywoods-new-wave-of-killer-women

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