Violent femmes: Atomic Blonde and Hollywood’s new wave of killer women | Film

Violent women are all the rage this season – so long as they are highly trained and impeccably dressed. Charlize Theron is a ruthless MI6 agent in Atomic Blonde, Jennifer Lawrence a seductive Russian in Red Sparrow and Taraji P Henson a slick hit-woman for the mob in Proud Mary. At first glance, it’s 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. It’s 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. It’s 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 – Nena’s 99 Red Balloons.

But we know as much about our heroine as her opponents do: that she is beautiful, lethal, clever and has a raft of secrets. I’m 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 Besson’s 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…

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