Clearly relishing the role, Charlize Theron shines in the stylish, intermittently entertaining Atomic Blonde. The movie, directed by David Leitch, has plenty of flair and some genuinely thrilling set pieces but is ultimately just a hollow facsimile of the movies it desperately wants to be.
Movie Review: Atomic Blonde
By Felix Quinonez
August 8, 2017
Things open on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A caption explains that in November 1989, the cold war came to an end. A second later an X is spray-painted over it and red words explain, “This is not that story.” This not only gives us the movie’s setting but it also serves as a mission statement of sorts. As Blue Monday by New Order plays in the background, its eagerness to show off how cool it is becomes evident.
The story itself, which is mostly bare bones, starts with an MI6 agent on the run. It’s a kinetically shot scene that begins already in progress. The agent is eventually caught, shot and killed. And his killer steals the microfiche list he had concealed in his wristwatch. And it’s his death and the mission to recover the list that sets things in motion or acts as the McGuffin, if you will.
That’s when Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) steps in. She has been tasked with recovering the list and embarks on a trip to Berlin to do so. But as soon as she arrives at the airport it seems she gets made. Her handlers attempt to kill her in the back seat of the car. Needless to say, she escapes in a very over the top fashion. Although it makes for a great scene, it does seem that, for a top level MI6 agent, Lorraine gets found out very quickly.
But that’s where her not-so-trustworthy inside source David Percival (James McAvoy) comes in. What follows is pretty standard spy thriller action. There is a lot of double crossing, dialogue loaded with double meaning and frequent cuts to a debriefing scene with Lorraine’s superiors.
If that seems like a very brief description of the film, it’s because there is not really much more to the story or it doesn’t really stay with you very long. Atomic Blonde is the type of movie that is thrilling and forgettable at the same time. Its story all but evaporates from your memory as soon as you leave the theater.
But the thing is, the story is almost beside the point. The movie, which at times feels like a two-hour long music video, basically uses the flimsy plot to set up the next action scene. But what splendid action it is.
Although it’s not as much of a revelation as it was in Fury Road, Charlize Theron’s performance is magnetic and visceral. She is the embodiment of badass and there is something incredibly thrilling about watching her kick and punch her way out of situations. Theron is almost machine-like in her commitment to the role, for which she did most of the stunts herself.
Director David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski, is an ex stuntman and has an amazing eye for action. The scenes themselves are perfectly shot and the action is the kind that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s hard to look away even when the bone crunching violence makes you want to close your eyes. The use of shaky cameras, very reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’s work on the Bourne films, is very effective.
Even the sound is precisely employed for maximum impact. During the fight scenes, the background sound is almost entirely cut out so only the fight itself is audible. The loud cacophony of punches and kicks pummeling human flesh, the grunts, gasps and painful screams come together to form an ear splitting violent orchestra. And it’s as perfectly composed as the fights themselves.
But the problem is that it is too often reminiscent of other movies. The movie recalls everything from John Wick to La Femme Nikita. And in one of the many fight scenes; the action takes place in front of a white movie screen so the characters are seen mostly in silhouettes. It’s very striking but an almost identical technique was already employed in Kill Bill to better effect.
And it also overuses one of the cheapest movie clichés of employing pop songs to fabricate excitement the movie can’t generate on its own. And although the songs are actually great, they are also very obvious choices. It feels like the movie is trying really hard to make itself seem hip by association.
Its attempts to be cool come off as transparent posturing that calls attention to itself. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re watching a movie or a photo shoot for a magazine cover. The characters don’t stand; they pose, holding their cigarettes like props as the smoke hangs in the air just right. And neon lights are the only things the movie seems to fetishize more than violence. The scenes are framed in a way that the overused neon lights shine hues of pinks and blues on all the characters in an over stylized way.
But there is something almost oddly entertaining about a movie that seems so confident about its own coolness when it really doesn’t have the right to be. And it’s about as subtle as one of Lorraine’s vicious punches to the face. Characters flat out explain things when subtext would have been more effective. Other times, the movie uses visual cues that spell things out for the viewer.
Charlize Theron is magnificent and badass, but the same can’t be said about the movie. Perhaps if it was as confident as it tries really hard to appear, it wouldn’t have felt the need to fill up every second with hollow signifiers of coolness or playing 1,000 overused pop songs. But the thing is that all the style in the world can’t save a movie that doesn’t have anything interesting beneath its shiny surface or hide the fact that it doesn’t have anything cool to say.
-- Felix Quinonez Jr. is an independent comic book creator living in Brooklyn, NY.
His self-published comic books and graphic novel have been sold in stores in NYC and online. He is the co-editor and contributor of a comic book Anthology called Emanata. That book features the work of many other talented creators from all around the country. You can check out his comic books and read more of his writing at The Neon Bulletin.