Atomic Blonde - David Leitch
From the director of both John Wick movies, Atomic Blonde comes pre-loaded with a certain familiarity: before the move has even begun, you can expect top-tier action sequences amid sumptuous set design against a killer soundtrack, which the movie delivers in spades. Every frame is awash in neon or chilly grey, and the action is handled with expertise by a seasoned team of action movie alumni, delivering thrills intermittently throughout the movie’s unexciting noir/espionage-thriller narrative.
Nowhere in its long and rambunctious marketing campaign did I see mention of the fact that Atomic Blonde is an adaptation, but it’s based on a graphic novel called The Coldest City, so now you know. The movie (and its source material, I presume) is the story of a botched rescue mission that occurs within the political pressure-cooker of 1989 Berlin, Germany, on the cusp of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. It’s told in flashback by Charlize Theron’s British spy/hitwoman Lorraine to Toby Jones and John Goodman, British and American government representatives, respectively. Outside of the narrative, this is the third hyper-stylized action film from David Leitch after reviving Keanu Reeves’s career, and is the next full-blooded action movie in Theron's career following Mad Max: Fury Road, suggesting that these kinds of movies may become a trend for the star. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.
The film opens with a quick summary of the historic significance of the Wall, graffitied out and replaced with “This is not that story” so there’s no confusion: Atomic Blonde is exactly what its trailer suggests, an exercise in style more concerned with staging action than investing it with meaning. The narrative isn’t entirely superficial, and we get time to see Lorraine’s humanity and absorb some zeitgeisty detail about the period setting, but that stuff is all in snatches and glimpses--the film’s eye, and so the audience’s eye, is on how much ass Lorraine kicks, and how many times she can get her own ass kicked before kicking back even harder. The most interesting aspects of Atomic Blonde’s world are those moments we get in the streets of Germany, bustling through crowded back alleys and neon-lit clubs. Breakdancing, mohawks, weird outfits, and tokens of skater culture all make appearances alongside your usual earmarks of brutal police regimes--dour expressions, matching uniforms, bad-cop/worse-cop tactics--but the world-building is an overall step down from the deftness of the John Wick franchise. We can always blame the source material, but you’d think this would be the one aspect to get a boost from some pre-existing lore.
No matter. Atomic Blonde plays fair by being so unapologetic about its intentions early on, because its shortcoming only really begin to show after the movie ends. While it’s on, it’s hard not to admire it as another round of near-perfect action choreography in scenes like the opening car chase, and the movie’s indisputable guitar solo: a hand-to-hand, no-holds-barred murderthon in a hotel stairwell that pits Lorraine against four armed Soviets. Its inventiveness is sublime and is probably the most visceral thing I’ve seen in a theater this year (barring the emotional carnage of It Comes At Night), the rare sort of fight that earns the right to be described as utilizing “everything but the kitchen sink,” and only because there isn’t a kitchen in the vicinity. A lesser movie would have you glancing around the frame at various makeshift weapons and tsk-tsking missed opportunities, but not this one. On top of that, it’s shot in one take, or at least edited to appear so, but it’s such a seamless composition that any camera trickery hardly matters. If it wasn’t clear by now, this is why and where you’ll get your money’s worth.
It’s almost enough to want to gloss over the movie’s problems. Entertaining as he is, James McAvoy has played this scumbag role a few times now in exactly the same manner. He’s had too varied a career to be typecast at this point, but his array of facial tics and fixed staring is grating when you’re seeing them for the umpteenth time, and when the script offers no openings for ambiguity or development. Intriguing as it initially seems, the whodunit mystery, and even the double-crosses, are rote and unengaging thanks to a lack of investment in these characters or their motivations. The effort at a more complex narrative is commendable; we don’t need to repeat the simplicity of John Wick, nor do good stories always need rootable characters, but it would be nice if the movie interrupted its own channeling of the emotional frostiness of the James Bond movies to give at least one character, other than Lorraine, a heartbeat to go with their poker faces. Her ostensible love interest Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a French operative Lorraine gets the drop on early and recruits for sex seemingly for titillation’s sake, is especially flat. We can predict her dialogue, the “twists” their relationship will take, and how she will serve the plot as accurately as we can predict McAvoy’s. It’s boring, and drains a lot of the film’s two-hour runtime of the guesswork that’s usually the draw for these kinds of films.
Atomic Blonde is a well-mounted, well-staged, and attractive film with a few excellent action setpieces mired in a lot of passable spy drama and good lighting. Excising half an hour would have done the movie a lot of good, maximizing the impact of its action sequences, which are admittedly worth the price of admission on their own. It could do without the flashback structure--unreliable narration is a cool device when used appropriately, but it’s such a straightforward story that the twist seems gratuitous, adding little more than an artificial “gotcha” to drum up excitement--but it’s an acceptable, if disposable, two-hour diversion. Catch it when it hits your preferred streaming service.
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