ATOMIC BLONDE

Ever since John Wick came out of nowhere to blow everybody away back in 2014, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next projects from directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to make John Wick: Chapter 2, delivering one of the best action film sequels of all time (and my current favorite favorite film of 2017). Leitch moved onto another action project, this time based off graphic novel The Coldest City. Stahelski showed that he could clearly handle a great action film on his own, but what about Leitch? 

Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989, right around the time when the Berlin Wall was getting ready to fall. One week after a botched mission in Berlin, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is brought in for questioning by her superiors and the CIA, in order to find out what happened. She tells the story of her mission, where ten days earlier, an MI6 agent in Berlin is killed by a KGB agent, who steals a list containing the names of the Soviet Union’s top agents. This causes MI6 to send Broughton to Berlin to retrieve the names, to where she meets up with contact David Percival (James McAvoy). However, Lorraine doesn’t know who to trust, for as soon as she steps foot in Berlin, she becomes a target who constantly has to fight for her life. 

When you think of an action film, it’s certainly possible for it to have a story that contains a political backdrop for our hero to encounter when they trot the globe. When you think of a political thriller, you don’t normally think of bloody, hyper-stylized action sequences being interspersed throughout. That’s the biggest issue with Atomic Blonde: its identity crisis, which is sort of funny considering it’s a Cold War-era spy thriller featuring double agents. When director David Leitch isn’t trying to wow you with the fantastic action sequences, he and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad attempt to get down into the inner workings of government agencies and the political climate surrounding the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall is a big aspect of the film, practically the backdrop to the film’s events, but it never felt it served an overall thematic purpose. For the type of action film it felt like it wanted to be, the plot felt a bit too complicated for its own good. 

Were the filmmakers trying to make a Cold War spy thriller with action elements, or an action film with an espionage Cold War backdrop? I was never really sure. They certainly seem to capture the aesthetic of late-1980’s Eastern Europe, all with some of the ugliest lighting and color grading you could imagine. Even when a shot is filled with color, it still looked go grey and desaturated. At least the action was clearly captured and directed, which is what matters most. Music, particularly 1980’s new wave pop, accompanies a lot of the film’s sequences to the point where it seems like some scenes were designed completely around the songs. While it’s fun seeing a delinquent being beat to death with a skateboard while 99 Luftbaloons blares in the background, Leitch never fully commits to the idea of music playing a part in the film. Songs will kick off action sequences, the audio out in full force, and then completely peter off while the scene is still happening. It just felt like an attempt to add an extra sense of style that wasn’t really necessary. 

The style and tone wouldn’t be issues if the film was actually compelling, but it falters there, too. That could be due to the fault of the source material, and not the filmmakers, but it’s nothing we’ve never seen before in a spy thriller. There are some neat elements to the character of Lorraine, where she has to juggle with her judgment, figure how to trust others, while also using her skills against them for her gain. She’s an interesting protagonist, although some revelations in the mess that is the third act really muddle her overall character. James McAvoy is the standout star here, giving us a layered performance as an eccentric, yet slightly unhinged, agent. He’s a true talent, who can believably go from charming and funny to completely terrifying on a whim. McAvoy and Theron are great together and are the best aspects when action isn’t taking place. 

I can’t sing my praises for the action sequences enough, especially during an impressive tracking shot where Lorraine barely fends herself off from a gang of thugs in a hotel stairwell. Theron is clearly a capable action heroine, performing (I believe) a majority of her own stunts and fight scenes. She’s brutal, fearless, and overall, resourceful. A big criticism levied against female driven action films is seeing a 130-pound woman take down a group of 200+ pound men with ease. With Lorraine, she gets pummeled and thrown against a wall, struggling to get back up. Luckily there’s a handy typewriter right next to her, ready to be picked up and whacked against somebody’s shins. This sense of realism really made these action sequences feel more visceral, with every bone crunch queuing a very appropriate wince. Of course, all of this would be for naught if it weren’t for the fantastic stunt team, but as Leitch showed us all when he co-directed John Wick, the man knows how to stage and execute a perfect action sequence.

It’s just a shame that everything surrounding the action was so lackluster. I love me a good spy thriller, but there has to be enough intrigue in order to keep my attention. I also love a great action film, but the action needs to actually serve the story instead of just showing off. Atomic Blonde has a lot to like, but it all doesn’t come together into a satisfying package. 

Oh, and one more thing, you’re telling me you have a film called Atomic Blonde where a lot of the action is driven by music, and you don’t once play the song Atomic by Blondie?! Come on! 

5/10

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