Berlin. 1989. Women kicking ass. Each of these has at least one of those elements. Some have two.
If you recently watched Grosse Pointe Blank on my recommendation (movies to watch after you see Spider-Man: Homecoming), you probably felt some deja vu with the Atomic Blonde soundtrack. And if you recently watched True Romance on my recommendation (movies to watch after you see Baby Driver), you might have felt some deja vu with the appearance of Charlize Theron battered and bloody and wielding a corkscrew as a weapon. Well, some movies are such classics that a lot of things remind us of them.
Atomic Blonde has more obvious connections. A lot of its fans relate it to John Wick, though that makes sense since both share director David Leitch (he co-directed the first Wick). Others bring up Mad Max: Fury Road because of Theron being a badass, though that’s also linked in the fact that Theron says she was able to make Atomic Blonde due to the success of Fury Road. For this week’s list of recommendations, I’m more interested in highlighting other essentials that maybe only I thought of while watching the new action movie.
Here are eight picks plus scattered honorable mentions:
One, Two, Three (1961)
While Atomic Blonde takes place in Berlin on the eve of the Berlin Wall coming down, Billy Wilder’s Cold War comedy is set in the city on the eve of the Berlin Wall going up.
Arguably the best satire of East vs. West, One, Two, Three stars James Cagney as an executive at Coca-Cola, the most perfect symbol of capitalism and Western cultural imperialism. His daughter is visiting from Atlanta, and of course, she falls for a Lenin-allegiant boy from the other side of the Brandenburg Gate. Lots of “Sabre Dance” ensues.
One, Two, Three was a big flop for Wilder, especially coming off the financial success and Best Picture-winning status of The Apartment, despite the fact that it’s one of his best movies. Apparently audiences weren’t interested in such a political farce so soon after the erection of the Wall, which happened between the start of the movie’s production and its release. I think it’s Cagney’s best performance, his last one before a 20-year retirement, and it’s at least Wilder’s most energetic effort, if not also his funniest.
Funeral in Berlin (1966)
Last week, I recommended another Guy Hamilton movie starring Michael Caine (Battle of Britain, one of the movies to watch after you see Dunkirk), so why not make it two in a row with this second installment of the Harry Palmer spy series? Caine reprises his role from The Ipcress Files, a British secret agent sent to Berlin to help a Soviet agent defect to the West by smuggling him in a coffin. On paper, it sounds similar to Atomic Blonde‘s Theron playing a British secret agent sent to Berlin to find a Stasi agent trying to defect to the West while also officially there to bring home another spy in a coffin.
In both movies, the main character is also working alongside another British agent stationed in Berlin and sleeps with a woman who also turns out to be a spy. And of course, there are some MacGuffin documents involved. Most importantly, the Wall is quite prominent. But obviously they’re tonally and temporally dissimilar. Funeral in Berlin being made just a couple decades after the end of World War II means it deals as much in its aftermath and secret Nazis as it does in material regarding the Cold War.
Here’s an obvious inclusion, as it actually appears in Atomic Blonde during a fight sequence at the famous Kino International cinema. But I assume a lot of people seeing the new movie aren’t familiar with Stalker, despite the Soviet sci-fi feature being Andrei Tarkovsky’s most accessible after Solaris. Is it likely to have been actually playing on the big screen in November 1989? Perhaps in East Berlin, where it didn’t open until 1982 and where there presumably wasn’t a lot of home video renting going on.
Stalker is about a forbidden zone that is heavily guarded by armed soldiers and secured by barbed wire fences. Understandably, the situation has been likened to the Wall and the East/West border in Berlin (see Jeremy Mark Robinson’s “The Sacred Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky“). The plot of the movie follows a man who guides two others through the zone to reach an alien place where wishes are granted, albeit imperfectly. Couldn’t we read that metaphorically as the promises of the West?
License to Kill (1989)
The opening of Atomic Blonde sees the death of a British spy named James, and while eventually we learn his last name, which isn’t Bond, I couldn’t help but first think this was a reference to 007. He’s killed off to make way for a woman spy similar to how a Bond lookalike is killed at the beginning of xXx to hint that times have changed and we need a spy more like Vin Diesel’s extreme sports athlete. The James in Atomic Blonde even looks, to me, at least in that first scene, like Timothy Dalton in his best form, mustached.
Dalton didn’t have a stache as James Bond, which is too bad. But he did “die” as Bond in 1989, as that’s when his second and final stint as the character was released, a few months ahead of the fall of the Wall. For a while, it seemed the whole franchise was done, which could have made sense for the fact that the Cold War was also ending. The gritty License to Kill, which doesn’t have anything to do with the Cold War and is barely even a spy film really, was a box office disappointment (it’s still 007’s lowest-grossing). The series went on hiatus for six years afterward, though that was partly because of legal issues. Anyway, see this one for a young Benicio Del Toro as a henchman and also to see if you’re in the camp that thinks this is one of the best or one of the worst Bonds.