Film Review: Atomic Blonde

by Chris Piper on July 28, 2017

Theron heats up a cold city

Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) smokes, drinks, kicks, and kills with the best of them.

Take a world nearing collapse, a main character with oodles of bitchy beauty, add some cold-war cloak and dagger spycraft, throw in some “fluid sexuality,” lots of fight scenes, and just a pinch of back story. Good so far? Not so fast. Take away the script. Take away the music. Take away much of the acting. Not so great? Ok, so put one truly fantastic fight scene back in, and you’re served Atomic Blonde, the Charlize Theron vehicle opening wide today.

First time helmer David Leitch, a former stunt man with co-directing credits on John Wick has taken the graphic novel series The Coldest City and turned it into a mostly a muddled mish-mash that owes much of its existence to Luc Bresson’s La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, as well founding father Doug Limon’s The Bourne Identity.

Full disclosure: I have not, nor do I plan to read any of the graphic novel series, so any connections with those works are unintentional. Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300, Act of Valor) has constructed a very basic MacGuffin story set in 1989 Berlin, just before the wall comes down, in which the usual governmental intelligence departments desperately need “The List” to protect agents, prevent the complete breakdown of world order, blah blah blah….

A number of characters chase the list, led by Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), “crown jewel of her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service,” and including Berlin Station Chief David Percival (James McAvoy), CIA operative Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), and French intelligence agent Delphine Lasalle (Sophia Boutella). Complicating matters is the existence, but not the identity of, “Satchel,” a double agent known to some, but not all (including the audience) who could betray anyone at any time for reasons that are confusing to most.

Leitch, his cinematographer Jonathan Sela, and his production designer David Scheunemann have endeavored mightily to create a late ’80’s Berlin on the brink of change in which TV news updates of protests and massing at the Berlin Wall presage the messy collapse of the old order. The film is bathed in icy blues and grays, and every other person (especially Theron) seems to be either smoking or downing shots of Stoli. Music supervisor John Houlihan saturates the soundtrack with countless ’80’s pop songs, mostly German variants. Unfortunately, the overall effect, which I assume attempts to replicate the atmosphere of the graphic novels, quickly becomes clichéd and tiresome onscreen.

So we have our plot, our subplot, our characters, and our setting, and we quickly move to the the film’s real purpose: a number of very elaborate action set piece scenes. Here Leitch’s real talent shines, and I predict his lasting contribution to the genré becomes clear. Though Theron is in fantastic shape, Leitch makes sure we know that, as a woman, she suffers from basic biological challenges when fighting men. Rather than attempt to convince us that she is superhuman, like Wonder Woman, he makes her take her punches, and sets up his fight scenes not as quick and furious moves and counter moves to a hasty end, but as drawn-out episodes where the winner uses perseverance, resourcefulness, and sheer will.

I guess blondes do have more fun.

There is one scene, about two-thirds through the film, that itself is worth the price of admission. Broughton gets thrown against walls, has various Berlin apartment household items smashed against her, and becomes more and more exhausted as the fight goes on. She does a fantastic job of conveying the sheer exhaustion that must accompany a fight of more than a few seconds, as well as how she must fight through pain and fear to think clearly and stay alive. Leitch also smartly avoids pausing his fights for interchanges between the characters, as is so common, especially in superhero films. His combatants quickly become animalistic savages fighting in real time to the death.

It’s too bad Theron doesn’t have much to do once she’s dispatched yet another attacker. Unfortunately, Leitch and Johnstad make the mistake of giving Theron way too many scenes and not enough character to fill those scenes, and she doesn’t have the acting chops to pull off holding down the entire film without more to say and do besides dress, undress, kill, and not be killed. Sad also to see Broughton’s almost laughable interlude with Delphine Lasalle, and a sex scene where two clearly straight women just cannot sell the audience that they’re actually hot for each other.

If you can overlook the film’s major artistic flaws, then you’ll definitely enjoy some of the best female-centric ass kicking in recent years.

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Atomic Blonde opens today in Bay Area theaters.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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