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Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Directed by: David Leitch

Premise: An adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City. Set in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a British spy (Charlize Theron) is sent to retrieve a microfilm that reveals the identities of the West’s covert operatives.

What Works: Atomic Blonde is the latest film in a wave of titles that include John Wick, The Raid, and their sequels in which a stone cold killer takes on a seemingly endless supply of henchmen in highly choreographed fights set to pulsing music. Atomic Blonde is an excellent addition to this trend. It’s primarily a style piece and Atomic Blonde has that in abundance. This is a film that is simultaneously ugly and beautiful; the scenes of violence are harsh and visceral but they are choreographed like a dance number and terrifically shot. Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch who was previously a stunt performer and stunt coordinator on films like The Matrix Reloaded and The Bourne Ultimatum. Leitch’s skills show in this film and whenever Atomic Blonde is in action mode it is really great filmmaking. The action sequences stand up with anything else in the genre, in particular a stairwell fight that is apparently captured in a single continuous shot. The music of Atomic Blonde complements its visual style. The movie is set in 1989 and it incorporates works from electronic and new wave artists of the time like David Bowie, New Order, and Nena. This adds to Atomic Blonde’s coolness bona fides while it also makes the movie fun and even playful. That quality contrasts with what is probably the most surprising thing about Atomic Blonde: the underlying pathos of its characters. This film does not romanticize the life and work of a spy the way that the classic James Bond films did. Instead, the world these spies inhabit is lonely and loveless; human connection is fleeting and all relationships are transactional. The film’s setting of 1989 Berlin is not random; the world around these characters is literally shifting before their eyes and imperiling everyone’s existence. That subtext gives the actors something to work with and they create interesting and empathetic characters. Atomic Blonde is led by Charlize Theron and she is fierce but also intelligent; Theron brings dramatic credibility to this action heroine. Also impressive are Sophia Boutella as a French operative and James McAvoy as another British spy with ulterior motives. Boutella plays a newbie to the spy scene and her character is heartbreaking in a way that is unexpected in an action movie. McAvoy is cast as a cynic whose uncertain allegiance is at least partly a response to the cutthroat world in which he lives.

What Doesn’t: The plot of Atomic Blonde is as unexceptional as its fight scenes are dazzling. This film rehashes the “covert list” trope seen before in Eraser and Mission: Impossible. In most of these kinds of films the MacGuffin is usually incidental but Atomic Blonde has trouble keeping itself dramatically compelling. The plot doesn’t have much sense of momentum in which one scene leads to the next and Theron’s character doesn’t drive the action. Despite her many fights and shootouts, she is a strangely passive protagonist with the action coming to her instead of the other way around. The pacing of Atomic Blonde is irregular. When it is in the throes of action, Atomic Blonde is great but whenever the action stops the film tends to drag. That’s partly because of its frame narrative style. The movie leaps between the action in Berlin and a debriefing that takes place afterward. This interrupts the flow of the story and takes some of the suspense out of it. The film ends on a twist that doesn’t pay off in the way it is intended to.

Bottom Line: Atomic Blonde is a great exercise in stylish action filmmaking. This picture prioritizes style above all else but Atomic Blonde’s thematic and character touches elevate it above the average shoot-’em-up movie.

Episode: #659 (August 6, 2017)