New Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger, James Faulkner, Sam Hargrave, Roland Moller
There is a scene late in Atomic Blonde that is so bone-crunchingly brutal, and yet so exhilaratingly shot and choreographed, that it stands as one of the best action set-pieces that I’ve ever seen. It begins when Charlize Theron’s British agent Lorraine Broughton enters an apartment building with an injured informant. She hops into an elevator to take out a few assassins several floors up. A long, bloody, cringe-inducingly violent fight ensues, and it eventually leads to a very destructive car chase through the streets of Berlin.
There are two aspects that make this scene stand out from many action set-pieces. For one, the entire thing is filmed in one unbroken shot. The scene lasts for a good ten minutes or so, and there isn’t an edit to be found during that time. Many directors have tried their hand at filming scenes in long unbroken shots, but they’re rarely as effective as what director David Leitch accomplishes here. It’s one of those movie moments that leave you wondering how they were able to pull it off without killing their actors.
Secondly, unlike a lot of fight scenes, where it appears as though the good guy and the bad guy have unlimited energy and strength until one of them eventually dies, there’s one stand-alone fight between Lorraine and a very muscular henchman where both fighters are so badly beaten that they can barely stand on their feet. There’s a long pause where both fighters struggle to stand and catch their breath, and that pause made the scene more effective than watching two seemingly unstoppable people endlessly beat each other to death.
When Atomic Blonde focuses on action, it more than delivers. Along with the help of ace cinematographer Jonathan Sela, Leitch delivers a number of crisply shot and flawlessly edited set-pieces that are truly wonderful to watch. You look at the action here, and you can’t help but wonder why Hollywood ever went down the shaky-camera route in the first place. Like, seriously, who in their right mind thought that shaking the camera to the point where you can’t see what’s going on was ever an effective approach to action scenes?
When it comes to the plot, however, Atomic Blonde comes up short. The basic premise – in which there is a list filled with names of secret agents that, if it ever got into the wrong hands, could mean the death of said agents – is one that’s been used in many spy movies like 1996’s Mission: Impossible and even 2012’s fantastically dark Bond thriller Skyfall. Of course, I knew that was the plot before seeing the movie. It’s lack of originality isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is how convoluted and messy the screenplay by Kurt Johnstad is.
The movie takes place in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The movie amusingly lets us know in the beginning that this movie isn’t really about that, but hey, it allows for a number of memorable 80s tunes to blare on the soundtrack. We open with Lorraine in an interrogation room with her MI6 superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA official Emmett Kurtzfeld (John Goodman), and they want to know the details about her recent mission in Berlin.
The bulk of the movie takes place in flashback, as we follow Lorraine as she’s sent to Berlin after her former flame and fellow agent Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed for the list. She teams up with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) to retrieve the list and kill the assassin who killed Gasciogne. Also on her to-do list is transporting the Stasi defector who stole the list in the first place, and who’s known as Spyglass (Eddie Marson), out of Berlin with his family.
The very talented Sofia Boutella co-stars as Delphine Lasalle, an inexperienced French operative who follows Lorraine around since she landed in Berlin and eventually becomes her lover. Boutella is quite good here, so much so that you’re left wishing that the movie did more with her. Unfortunately, she’s criminally underused, and disappears for such a large chunk of the second half that I was left wondering if her character was going to get any payoff at all.
There are quite a few double crosses over the course of the movie, so many that it becomes a little convoluted in trying to keep up with every character’s motivations. There comes a point where even the Theron character becomes problematic. The movie tells us so little about her that it’s hard to care about what she does or what happens to her. One could argue that that’s kind of the point, given what we learn about her in the final scene, and in a way I understand Johnstad’s decision to tell as little about her as possible. And yet, the movie fails to compensate for this lack of character development by making her a one-note figure from the beginning. Theron’s perfectly fine in the role; she’s an immensely talented actress. It’s just the role itself isn’t really that interesting.
There's also an issue with the film's pace, which comes to a complete halt every time it cuts back to the interrogation room. Cut those scenes out, or at least save them for the end, and tackle the story with a more linear approach, and it might have made the proceedings more fast-paced and even suspenseful (there's no suspense in whether Lorraine is going to live, since she's in the present day interrogation room scenes). As it stands, the movie moves along in a frustratingly uneven manner.
That being said, there is no denying that Atomic Blonde has a lot of things working for it. The movie is so stylishly shot – from Lorraine’s neon blue lit hotel room to the cold, wintry exteriors of Berlin – that it’s always an absolute joy just to look. The performances are also very good, with McAvoy once again stealing every scene he’s in. And the action scenes are absolutely spectacular. The aforementioned stair well scene/car chase is terrific enough, but I also really liked the fist fight where the combatants are silhouetted against a theater screen showing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Is the movie worth seeing? For its style and awesome action sequences, I say yes, but I truly do wish they gave us a better story to go along with the spectacle. The movie is perfectly watchable for the most part, but when it gets to the action scenes, boy does it ever come alive. One complaint I’ve heard from many people is that the petite and small Charlize Theron couldn’t send big muscular men flying through the air with a swift kick. What I want to know is why they are taking the movie so seriously in the first place? It’s based off a 2012 comic book by Anthony Johnston. Leitch is not taking it seriously (heck, nobody is), so why should you?
Final Grade: a mild *** (out of ****)
A hard R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content, nudity, profanity