July 30, 2017

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

As soon as I saw the first trailer for Atomic Blonde, I knew I had to see it. Stylized action starring Charlize Theron? It did not take all that much to sell me on it. The question was always whether or not the film would live up to the trailer. That always is the question when I see a good trailer (of which there are precious few that genuinely get me excited). The buzz I heard around it was very much in the positive vein, so I had very little in the way of apprehension as I approached the screening. I had more of a giddiness inside as I sat down in that theater and waited for the feature to begin.

Atomic Blonde was directed by David Leitch, whose last film saw him co-directing with Chad Stahelski. That movie was John Wick, the surprise hit action film from a few years back. After the successful co-directing, the duo split with Leitch taking on this project and Stahelski taking full reigns of John Wick 2 (which came out earlier this year). Of course, I didn’t realize the director connection until after seeing the film, but it makes sense. The action is filmed and executed in a similarly stylized fashion, I mean, they are very different, but one can recognize the lineage.

The screenplay was written by Kurt Johnstad, who previously adapted the two 300 films and wrote Act of Valor. The film is an adaptation of the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. It is funny, as much as I really liked this film, it is the screenplay, more specifically, the story that held it back from my own higher esteem. At first I thought it was the cold detachment of the exercise, but no, that wasn’t it, that separation suited the characters, setting, and overall style. My problem was with the general ho-humness of a spy agent, double crossing, find a list of agents identities tale that we have all seen before. I had hoped for something more from the plot in the service of the great style.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a top undercover agent for MI6. She is tasked with going to Berlin during the Cold War, in order to retrieve a stolen list of agents identities. Told in flashback as Lorraine is being debriefed about the mission by her superior (Toby Jones) and a CIA liaison (John Goodman). It seems the mission did not go exactly as planned.

We follow Lorraine to Berlin where she meets up with another British agent (James McAvoy) operating in the underworld to track down the missing list. What follows is a series of double crosses and near misses as more and more people begin searching for the list and/or ending up dead. Things take a turn when they decide to change the focus to the STASI agent who initially had the list and claims to have it memorized. So, rather than get the list, they will get the traitor out of Berlin with his knowledge. Of course, that doesn’t go very well as we learn people’s true motives and allegiances.

Taken that as the description, the plot is a little underwhelming. I feel like we have all seen variations on the get the list type of spy tale many times in the past. Now, I am not against seeing the same story told multiple times, it really comes down to execution and style. Atomic Blonde has great execution and style to spare, but even that does not save the generic plot. The cold detachment of the the characters, while intriguing, put a spotlight on the plot, which never grabbed me. So, at some point, I just let go of the plot and focused on the style and action. That worked, that got me very much into the movie.

Charlize Theron goes about her actions in as cold a manner as is dictated by her atomic blonde hair. A woman who is near superhuman in ability managing to extricate herself from many deadly situation and kill many enemy agents along the way. Watching her go about executing the plot, feeling out other agents (quite literally in one case), fight off all manner of attackers, and remain focused on the goal is quite extraordinary.

At the center of the film is one long, extended take fight scene that sees her fighting in stairwells and apartments, going up and down between floors, and ending in a big car chase. This sequence, which I am convinced has a few cuts hidden in camera pans and the like, is a technical marvel. The brutality and resiliency of the fighters, the fight with anything they can get their hands on desperation, is just a sight to behold. It is a credit to everyone involved and really is quite involving to the viewer, at least this one.

Atomic Blonde is a very good movie. It has some great action, good acting, and is dripping with style. The one thing holding it back is the generic plot. I just can’t wrap my head around it, I get it, I just feel that this film’s action and style deserve something more than what it is saddled with. I came around on the coldness of the film and the way it keeps its audience at arm’s length (unlike, say, the John Wick films, which have a strong emotional pull for me) and see it as a strength of the film, but I just do not care for story. Fortunately the rest of it is good enough to overcome its plot and deliver a solid style over substance experience.


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