Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed, written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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22 thoughts on “Atomic Blonde

  1. Pingback: Month in Review: August ’17 | Thomas J

  2. Yeah I’m with you on this to many degrees here. Charlize kicks all kinds of arse, no doubting that. That soundtrack was fantastic too. Because the action is so great I’ll probably go see this again, or maybe wait for a HD version to surface on the net. I’ve already paid to see it! 😛

    I think you mentioned it but the structure of the movie takes away from the momentum. Goodman is criminally underused too.

    Although…. I guess it isn’t a huge issue when the action is great, but I found myself not caring in the slightest about Charlize (I didn’t even realise what her character’s name was until reading this!). And while the story was interesting, I usually looooove Cold War stuff, especially a story based in an alternate reality (another fave)! But… this story didn’t do it for me. Neither did the twists, at first they were good, but there were too many for me eventually, even for a movie of this genre.

    McAvoy was indeed incredible, great to see him put that energy to good use (I hated HATED Split :P)

    Nervous is a good way to put the direction. I couldn’t put my finger on it but some of it, some of the action scenes, felt a little unsure of themselves. Most of the action was great, though…. the combat was great, but for whatever reason I prefer the Wick films. I think that whole Assassin’s Guild thing from the second and the simple fact they killed his dog in the first was enough to make me care more about everything. The tactics Wick used in those films weren’t really here either.

    Shit, sorry for the long reply mate. I’ve written half a review here it seems. Perhaps I should get onto writing one myself!!

    • I apologize in return for taking so long to respond! Haha!

      Yeah, I return to that word ‘nervous’ because it just gets a little OTT and unfocused but the general vibe here is really fun and this is yet another really strong character for Charlize Theron and she takes full advantage. This may not make my end-of-year best or anything but it’s surely going to remain one of the most entertaining films of the year.

      And yeah, while I liked that they cast big name actors in even the smallest parts — John Goodman and Tobey Jones — I felt like those roles in particular could have been taken by anyone and made just as good. Goodman’s character was, as you put it, criminally underused

      • Fun for sure.

        And yeah it did feel like anyone could have played them. Unless they gave Goodman at least 15 extra minutes, cos he was starting to become an interesting piece in the puzzle that unfortunately was a little convoluted for me

  3. The female John Wick? Have been lax on the movie going front of late but am struggling to find the time. Do I need to see this on the big screen or will the smaller screen do?

    • I don’t think much would be lost at home, but some of the action might be best enjoyed on a bigger screen for sure. As long as you get around to seeing it, that would be the most important thing! Such a fun and hard-hitting little flick.

  4. This was a good watch in which the awesome music (soundtrack and score, this is definitely making an appearance in my music series), great lead performances, and great fight sequences (the stairwell scene really is worth the price of admission alone) slightly outweigh the meh to bad script at times.

    It’s one of those scripts where I could probably understand how all the pieces fit with multiple rewatches in depth, but I have no interest to want to really sit down and watch for that level of depth. But, I’ll happily watch anytime this is on HBO on a surface level. It does have that level of entertainment, kind of like last year’s War Dogs, which I’ve found myself watching often.

    I used the word “level” a lot here lol.

    • Well I’ll level with ya, I definitely thought there was maybe one twist too many as you said. But Atomic Blonde’s positives far outweigh the negatives for me. Theron’s performance was unforgettable and as you note the soundtrack and the composition of it all was exquisite

    • Thanks! I think even the lesser enthusiastic towards Charlize Theron will find a lot to love about this movie! 😉

  5. I only saw the trailer recently, and it looked so good I am probably going to go and see it. Great work as always, Tom. Glad you enjoyed it

    • Thank you Nat! It’s a crazy, high-energy little action flick that gives Theron maybe her most badass character yet. Imperator Furiosa was awesome, but I find this to be on another level.

    • Thats great to hear! Unfortunately I think that has been the case here, no one I know of has really heard about it. A big shame, because this movie has a lot to offer a big audience. This is a lot of fun.

    • I just had to look that up, because the name was definitely familiar but I couldn’t put a face to it. You’re right! That’s uncanny.

      “Sexy, violent and fun” is the perfect way to sum this up. Style over substance in a way that’s entirely guilty pleasure.

    • I was really pretty impressed. It’s fun. And this marks another really solid leading performance from Charlize Theron. She’s really starting to stack them up!

      Hope you enjoy.

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