A film review by Craig J. Koban August 5, 2017

ATOMIC BLONDE jjj
½ 

2017, R, 115 mins.

 

Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton  /  James McAvoy as David Percival  /  Sofia Boutella as Delphine  /  John Goodman as Emmett Kurzfeld  /  Toby Jones as Gray  /  Eddie Marsan as Spyglass  /  Bill Skarsgård as Merkel  /  Roland Møller as Beckmentov  /  Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson as Yuri Bakhtin

Directed by David Leitch  /  Written by Kurt Johnstad

ATOMIC BLONDE has been aggressively compared to the JOHN WICK series, which is both understandable and somewhat redundant.  

The co-director of the first JOHN WICK, David Leitch, appears behind the camera in ATOMIC BLONDE, making his solo directorial debut.  The film was also heavily advertised on a level of unleashing a considerable amount of JOHN WICK-ian bone crunching and blood-spraying mayhem.  Yet, the two films could not be anymore different, seeing as JOHN WICK was a grindhouse revenge action thriller and ATOMIC BLONDE is a Cold War era espionage thriller.  That, and ATOMIC BLONDE features a ruthlessly effective female protagonist in a genre ostensibly populated by men. 

But, yes, one half of the tandem that bestowed one of the best action films of recent memory on the world in JOHN WICK is here to oversee ATOMIC BLONDE, which is indeed noteworthy in itself, and this film most assuredly brings the same level of furious and swift brutality to its action sequences and a painterly eye to its visuals that's to be applauded.  But the real reason to see this 1980's themed spy film is for its lead star in Charlize Theron, who invests herself in her role with a ferocious commitment that builds strongly on the action hero cred she firmly established beforehand with her memorable turn in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.  When it boils right down to it, Theron's role would have, under lesser creative and enlightened hands, gone to a male performer, but ATOMIC BLONDE wholly celebrates its female protagonist as a fierce and cunning architect of blunt force trauma.  That, and ATOMIC BLONDE is evocatively stylish with its highly self aware Regan era pop culture referencing and is as sumptuously photographed as any film from 2017.  Even with its problematic scripting that holds it back from achieving true genre greatness, I was nevertheless won over by the infectiously bodacious spirit of the whole enterprise.   

 

 

The setup of ATOMIC BLONDE - based on the graphic novel THE COLDEST CITY - is deceptively simple: Set very specifically and compellingly in 1989 Berlin, during which time the Berlin Wall was poised to come toppling down, leading to a whole new era of prosperity where societal divisions would be eroded.  At the same time, though, spies working on both sides are desperately trying to prepare for post Berlin Wall life, and everyone's undercover lives are threatened with the appearance of a cryptic database of all active field agents both East and West of the wall, Intel that could prove highly dangerous if in the wrong hands.  After this "MacGuffin" manages to be secured by a British operative, it's subsequently stolen by a vile Russian terrorist that wishes to sell it to whomever has the largest pocket books, leaving spy agencies of the world scrambling to intercept it. 

MI6 predictably steps in and sends in one of its most coveted and lethal agents, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) into Berlin to retrieve the list via any means necessary while, if possible, locating and eliminating a potential double agent that's pulling everyone's strings behind the scenes for the last several years.  She's initially paired with the head of British Intelligence's Berlin office, David Percival (a crackerjack James McAvoy, as unpredictably mischievous as ever), whose erratic nature proves to be a handful for Lorraine.  Of course and as is the case with every spy film, implicitly trusting anyone during her mission proves difficult for the main hero - whether it be Percival, her handlers (Toby Jones and John Goodman) or another undercover spy (Sofia Boutella) - which leads to Lorraine trying to navigate her way through wave after wave of goon squads that are looking to eradicate her as she gets closer to achieving her mission.

If I were to have a criticism of ATOMIC BLONDE then it would be that its core premise - ultra important cover blowing spy intel needs to be recovered - lacks a bit of novel inspiration, not to mention that its overall plot structure - bookended with Lorraine being interrogated by her handlers in the present with the rest of the film being presented in a series of flashbacks - has the negative effect of curtailing any level of suspense when it comes to the lead character's fate.  Yet, the consummate cinematic craftsmanship that's chiefly on display is what will win over audiences and make them forget such narrative contrivances.  Setting the film in the neon colored 1980's not only, for example, provides an effective and intriguing geo-political backdrop for the proceedings, but it also allows Leitch and company to go joyously hog wild when it comes to the film's aesthetic choices, one of which involves the ubiquitous usage of the music of the period (ATOMIC BLONDE not only works sensationally well as a viscerally charged spy thriller, but also as a toe tapping 1980's jukebox musical of the era's most iconic tunes). 

All of the wonderful music selections help to instantly transport viewers to Europe of yesteryear, but ATOMIC BLONDE matches itS breezy pop and rock infused soundtrack with a lush eye for visual splendor.  Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela create an unendingly gorgeous looking film that benefits from bold and vibrant color palette choices that give the film an ethereal beauty that's atypical to both the action and spy genre while lovingly evoking the story's comic book roots.  Leitch directs ATOMIC BLONDE with not only headstrong confidence, but also with a keen understanding for pacing and letting the story generate interest slowly, but surely.  Kurt Johnstad's screenplay isn't ostensibly focused on using the narrative as a simplistic device to get us from one action scene to the next; he's compelled to create mysterious intrigue from the ground up to keep us guessing, which leaves ATOMIC BLONDE feeling a lot more patient with unfolding itself than other recent genre examples. 

Then there's the continuous pleasure of watching Charlize Theron in full-on beast mode utterly commanding every scene she occupies here.  On a level of stone cold, poker faced authority, dangerous lethality, and cunning intelligence, Theron makes her super spy one to savor.  That, and the Oscar winning actress gives a beyond commanding physical performance that demonstrates - nine times out of ten - that she does indeed appear to be putting her body on the line for her art in terms of ignoring the usage of obvious body doubles when he character is required to get rough and rugged.  Theron is one of the most exquisitely attractive women of the movies, but she's a rare breed of porcelain beauty that can come off as an authentically rendered bruise knuckled and teeth clenched purveyor of ass-kicking tenacity.  Her Lorraine Broughton deserves worthy comparisons with the Ellen Ripley's and Sarah Connor's that came before her. 

Of course, the real reason to see ATOMIC BLONDE is for its stunningly choreographed action and fight sequences, many of which can easily match the finest of what JOHN WICK had to offer.   Some of them are as breathlessly engineered as any I've seen, such as was the case with an astonishingly savage sequence - all seemingly done with one long take, albeit with most likely some hidden edits - that features the stiletto heeled Lorraine punch, kick, stab, and shoot her way through wave after wave of Euro trash henchmen as she makes her way down several flights of stairs in a building while trying to elude capture and inevitable death.  There is a liberating sense of pure joy to witness Theron lunge head first into scene after scene of her character inflicting unique bodily harm on her multiple male victims using every improvisational weapon to be had and found.  On a level of pure cinematic showmanship and orchestrated chaos, ATOMIC BLONDE is as viciously efficient and effective as they come.   

I found myself applauding other creative choices with Theron's character, like the fact that they give her a same sex love interest in Boutella's slinky and sexy fellow agent (in an albeit underwritten role), which is kind of revelatory, seeing as I highly doubt that we'd ever see, say, a particular 007 agent in another series shack up with another man in any future adventure.  I admire ATOMIC BLONDE's willingness to have unbridled amounts of giddy and propulsive fun with its material while systematically eroding some of its genre's more misogynistic and overused troupes.  The film, alas, isn't completely air tight, with its wraparound, time jumping plot that stymies suspense and a final act that perhaps has one too many endings for its own good with two many self-indulgent plot twists.  But I'm willing to overlook and forgive such indiscretions, because ATOMIC BLONDE is a deliriously entertaining piece of pulp spy fiction that wholeheartedly and gratifyingly delivers on its intended levels of exhilaratingly ultra violent action that's framed with a painterly eye.  And Theron is equal to the task of creating a force of nature that deserves worthy hero worship up there with her male action film brethren like Mr. Wick.  

That's no easy feat. 

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