FOCUS FEATURES (2017)
Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Bill Skarsgård, Roland Møller
“I fucking love Berlin!”
John Wick co-helmer David Leitch brings us something slightly different in his solo debut, Atomic Blonde. Not quite the "Jane Wick" it has been described as, the movie is a spy thriller that weaves here and weaves there, all set to a hit soundtrack against the backdrop of 1989 Berlin.
For a spy thriller, it isn’t particularly thrilling.
Top MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is in deep trouble. After fellow agent James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) is murdered and a top secret List stolen from him by the KGB, she is under interrogation by her own superiors and also the CIA. See, the List contains the names of every active agent in Berlin and now they’re all in danger – Lorraine had been on a mission in Berlin to retrieve that list and all didn’t go to plan seemingly. She recounts her mission to Eric Gray (Jones) and Kurzfeld (Goodman) that includes her rendezvous with the shady David Percival (McAvoy) – her key contact in Berlin – and rookie agent Delphine Lasalle (Boutella). Early run-ins with KGB associate Aleksander Bremovych (Møller) and Percival’s intel lead Lorraine to a Stasi officer named Spyglass (Marsan) – the man who has the info she needs. Turns out it’s a fairly open secret that Lorraine is in town and she needs to fight off enemies from every direction in order to survive and ensure the List is safely returned to her superiors. With every new lead taking Lorraine down twisted paths, who can be trusted and who is playing who?
Full of stylised violence, following the (near tedious) trend of utilising ironic soundtracks and proudly displaying hyper neon visuals, Atomic Blonde is certainly a chic movie (at first, I thought I was watching a Guy Ritchie movie). Visually appealing - grey, washed out scenes drenched in neon lighting have a certain aesthetic quality to it that allows the movie to be enjoyed from that standpoint – it does look good. There’s a grittiness that encompasses the mood of the time – Berlin, 1989, Cold War – and the callbacks are well-handled. Where the movie falls flat is the convoluted plot and the off-structure narrative – the jumping back and forth between present and past is jarring and the plot has too much going on. It’s fairly simple to unravel the machinations early on as the writing isn’t exactly subtle, however, the story may have worked better as a standard narrative – that way, the ‘twists’ may have had a greater effect. Character motivations are pretty blurred, and the lack of depth they carry ensures the stakes are low (as does the interrogation scene in general) as well as ensuring the plot becomes muddy.
There’s nothing wrong with the performances, though. Charlize Theron prowls and snarls through each scene and really sells her character – she kicks arse and it’s not hard to believe that she really would in the real world. She’s a tough cookie. McAvoy is solid as ever in his jittery, wired performance and the talented supporting cast, including Goodman, Boutella, Skarsgård and the always great Toby Jones are all high class in their roles.
How much action is in Atomic Blonde? Lots. Is it any good? For the most part, yes. There’s plenty of stabbings with various instruments, hard hand-to-hand combat, bullets flying and a steady stream of blood. One standout sequence, shot handheld, on a staircase is the movie's highlight as Lorraine steams through wave after wave of tough goons to protect Spyglass. The action is caught close-up and every hit and flesh puncture are ferociously captured – it’s by far the best sequence of the movie. The main hang-up? Everyone had a superhuman tolerance for pain that after a while began to wear thin – I get it, you’re all tough, but that knife to the neck is putting you down first time.
The trend of cool soundtracks continues here with cuts like Cat People (Bowie), 99 Luftballons (Nena), Cities in Dust (Siouxsie and the Banshees) and Der Kommissar (After the Fire) punctuating scenes throughout. It’s cool to hear the oldies, but at times it’s all too on the nose, and when it’s not integrated correctly, it’s just annoying. Unfortunately, this happens a few times as the music fades in and out, abruptly changes or blares out when things ramp up on screen – it didn’t work this time out and became distracting. Plus, London Calling…whilst in Paris? Nope.
Atomic Blonde has a good story hidden in its murky narrative – it does – but the way it is presented is detrimental to the overall movie. Beginning with flashbacks and interrogations pretty much lowers the stakes and the…not so great writing hampers the story further, creating a mess whilst also unsubtly throwing answers to the viewer. Charlize Theron is great in her role, however, the movie lets her down. Great action does not solely equate to a great movie, and Atomic Blonde ends up being a disappointment.
November 29th 2017