Jul 29, 2017

Review: "Atomic Blonde" is a Fun Action Movie Undone By a Bad Spy Story

Scene from Atomic Blonde
While Wonder Woman is likely to get more credit, there was another awesome female bad-ass movie based off of a comic book to come out this summer. Director David Leitch (John Wick) adapted Antony Johnston & Sam Hart's "The Coldest City" into Atomic Blonde and in the process transformed Charlize Theron into one of the greatest female spies in recent history. Anyone who doubts her potential need not watch more than the various fight scenes, all done by Theron, where her physicality and choreography creates an intense and visceral rush through 1980's Cold War East Europe. It's a performance so iconic that it'll likely be talked about for years to come, with several scenes racking up countless views on YouTube. While it's not quite Furiosa big, it does solidify Theron's status as an action star. Shame that the rest of the story doesn't realize that.
Like all spy thrillers, it begins simple enough with a mission. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) must retrieve information from Berlin with help from the unstable David Percival (James McAvoy). While the story exists, it really is a jumping off point for Leitch to reinvent the Cold War action film to his liking. With convincing sets and a pop soundtrack that manages to be eclectic without being sappy, the film drips with style that makes Berlin into one of the greatest cities in the world. The only issue that is bigger than getting what she needs is getting it out of the city, and convincing her superior (Toby Jones) that whatever offense she committed was justified. It's a story layered with deception, though it is all secondary to what the film really is about: exploring Lorraine's personal life as a spy and her vulnerability when it comes to intimacy whether in friendship with David, or in a more intimate way with a French operative (Sofia Boutella).
As a character, Lorraine is far more interesting than Leitch's more acclaimed John Wick. It could be that the story allows her to develop more even as she hides her identity. An early scene shows her rising from an ice chilled tub, her body bruised and scarred. The audience doesn't quite know what caused her black eye, but time will give it away. Still, for a film that embraces her sexuality, it never rises to an exploitative level, instead treating her body as an extension of her story. She constantly changes disguises to fool people, and both literally and mentally it has taken a toll on her. Even the few sex scenes are treated as passionate instead of gross, showing how much her longing for a normal life can be upset by people prying into her personal affairs, as the wraparound device of the movie suggests. Lorraine may be awesome when it comes to fighting, but it's her character that inevitably makes those moments count more.
Theron is fearless and brings an awe-inspiring charisma to the fight sequences. There is one moment in particular that takes place along a stairwell. With great choreography, Leitch uses a long take and several flights of stairs leading into a hotel room to show a brutal fight scene. It's one obstacle after another, and the tension rises the longer it goes. Without an edit, there is the constant sense that she will be attacked. It's masterfully shot and gives Atomic Blonde exactly the right vibe. Considering that Theron did her own stunts and earned a few scars, she at least deserves credit at being one of the hardest working women in show business (along with The Fate of the Furious, she's also bringing back Cold War pastiches, which is odd).
The only issue comes down to story. The characters who popular Atomic Blonde are interesting enough to be supporting roles, but lack the dynamic of Lorraine. Even McAvoy, fresh off of the incredible Split, feels a little disengaged despite bringing a neurotic touch to his character. Still, it's a mix of director and actor that makes it shine, especially as the soundtrack runs through various pop hits of the 80's and juxtaposes them against intense action sequences, including an odd car chase sequence. The energy is intense, but it suffers once the motives and double crossing subtext begins to surface. For a story that thrived on fun and direct action, its plotting is anything but, making it into a bothersome faux-intellectual summer blockbuster.
Atomic Blonde is a fun action movie undone by a bad spy story. With that said, Theron's performance must be seen to be believed, and she makes a character that is so gripping and brutal that you want to see her fight an Amazonian God. Leitch also confirms that he is a man who can reinvent the action genre and make it more interesting by giving enough character depth amid vibrant action sequences. The film may be lacking a little, but it's still a great addition to the summer comic book movie season. It feels so understated that it will build into a cult hit. Still, its R-rating feels so well deserved and executed that it is the perfect antidote for the onslaught of PG-13 action movies this summer. It isn't graphic in violence, but you will feel the intensity on screen, in part because of its excellent cinematography accompaniment. Beyond that, it's just a good chance to see women kick butt and trick men. What's not to love?

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