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Friday, July 28, 2017

Review: ATOMIC BLONDE Is Beautiful, Brutal, and Brainless

Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is one of MI6's top spies during the Cold War, a relentless British agent with a gift for recognizing a trap - and the means to fight her way out of it. Days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she's sent to the divided city to track down 'the List', an extensive record of British spies... that also includes the identity of a mole secretly feeding intelligence to the Russians. There, she meets her contact, a Glasgow spy gone native in Berlin (James McAvoy), a novice French agent (Sofia Boutella) who seems drawn to her, and a number of enemies bent on getting the List before she can. But Berlin is in chaos, and Broughton is made by the KGB as soon as her plane lands, complicating her mission -- and the presence of the mole in the city means she can't trust anyone.

Directed by John Wick's David Leitch and given an ass-kicking, action-packed trailer, my assumption going in was that this would be a straight up action movie, particularly given all promotion around Theron's training and stunt regimen. There's one fight scene, the beginning of which has figured prominently in the film's marketing, that is truly spectacular, a long-take action scene that, to me, was the highlight of the film. It plays to one of Leitch's (and Stahelski's in Wick) seeming signature moves, in which a beautifully choreographed fight scene actively plays with the idea of combatants getting tired and wounded, slowing down and getting sloppy. It's a way to humanize action that is refreshing in the age of the invulnerable protagonist, and it adds a ton of tension to the fight and humanity to Broughton and her foes.

But much of the movie is actually a fairly traditional spy thriller, as characters try to tail one another, plant bugs without being noticed, and generally control who knows what and when. And look, a good spy story is hard. By far the most common mistake I see made is one in which the author leans too hard into the 'trust no one' trope and applying it to the main character as well; a fundamental force of drama depends on knowing what the main character wants, after all. Atomic Blonde doesn't just make this mistake, but rather it leans into it so wholeheartedly it warps the structure of the film around it, introducing unnecessary flashbacks trying to disguise something most viewers will guess pretty early on. Upon the conclusion of the movie and its final, terrible twist - going for The Usual Suspects' Kaiser Soze, ending up with Star Trek Into Darkness' John Harrison - most of my reaction boils down to... "Wait, what? Literally nothing I just watched makes sense."

Atomic Blonde is a movie of visceral and immense surface pleasure, from its phenomenal soundtrack and fashion to some lovingly choreographed bone-breaking action. Theron manages the almost-impossible task of playing dead-behind-the-eyes weariness with immense charisma, playing Broughton with a style I legitimately don't think anyone else working today could pull off. Sofia Boutella continues to impress in too-small parts, though her character here is tragically stereotypical. And James McAvoy is a true standout, bringing an appropriately sleazy charm to his punk rock spy that plays on McAvoy's bent sense of humor and scrawny vulnerability in some smart ways. The movie's most interesting and effective bits of spy flick twistiness come when these three, ostensibly allies, are trying to protect themselves from each other and try to screw each other over while still working towards roughly the same goal. But, what goal are they working towards?

The pieces for an excellent movie are all there... and they are often plenty of fun. But the film can't overcome a script that veers from gibberish to nonsense even in its finest moments. Leitch's previous film, John Wick, was criticized by some for its overly simplistic plot, but... I don't know, simple isn't inherently bad, just like complex isn't inherently good. At no point during John Wick was I confused as to what any single character wanted, and the bloody car crash that followed was thus something I could understand and empathize with; I could see it coming, wish it wouldn't come, and understand that it must. With Atomic Blonde, even having seen the movie through its silly final twist, I actually couldn't tell you a single thing about Lorraine Broughton, and the lack of humanity Leitch and writer Kurt Johnstad give her character outside of the way Theron moves is the film's greatest mistake.

Atomic Blonde has plenty to recommend it. Its performances are strong, particularly Theron's relentless physicality, and the movie has style to spare, its faux-anarchic blood-soaked neon capturing the feeling of a certain late-80s subculture. But, much as I love Theron, the film ultimately left me hollow. It's not just that the story made no sense - though it didn't - but that the reason it made no sense was because the filmmakers decided to hide key information from the audience for little reason beyond the temporary thrill of a twist. This ethos, the dedication to aping the surface elements of a spy story without concern for how the pieces fit together, offers some quick surprises but few truly lasting moments. Any decent spy knows the importance of playing the long game.

Atomic Blonde is out now in theaters across the nation. Directed by David Leitch and written by Kurt Johnstad adapting the Antony Johnston and Sam Hart's graphic novel, The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde stars Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, and Sofia Boutella.
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