Atomic Blonde (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
19Jan/180

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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The Berlin Wall is about to come down, but not before the spies who've staked their claim make one last gasp for global supremacy.  Lorraine Broughton, stoic and strong MI6 field agent, enters the fray hoping to secure a list that threatens to expose every spy in Berlin.  David Leitch directs Atomic Blonde, with the screenplay written by Kurt Johnstad, and stars Charlize Theron.

New rule, which I hope is broken some day, James McAvoy and Eddie Marsan appearing in the same film is a sure sign what I'm watching will not rise above mediocrity.  They were in the awful "edgy" Filth together and both have supporting roles in Atomic Blonde, another film so insufferably up its tailpipe in slick self-aware cool that I briefly wanted to switch it off.  I've come to appreciate aspects of McAvoy performances and frequently love Marsan, so here's hoping they find a way to never cross paths again.

For Atomic Blonde itself, by god is the first hour a slog.  Director David Leitch worked with Chad Stahelski on the first John Wick film, and it's hard to shake off the sensation that Leitch is looking to prove he is the powerhouse creative talent.  Between spraying graffiti on interstitial text details setting the stage for spy game shenanigans of Lorraine (Charlize Theron), and lens flare dominating so many scenes I'm surprised J.J. Abrams doesn't have a cinematography credit, Atomic Blonde demands attention.  It reeks of desperation to please, an idea not easily shaken by totally unnecessary lesbian sex scene and the death of James Gasciogne, played by Sam Hargrave.  Hargrave's resemblance to both Keanu Reeves and Roger Moore combined with his early death is yet another loud, "This isn't John Wick and/or James Bond!"

I came around on James McAvoy with Split, but his smug scumbag routine grates in Atomic Blonde.

But I'm getting tangled up in the meta commentary that made Atomic Blonde such a chore.  I wish I could go from negative to positive explaining the affect of Atomic Blonde's visuals but I'm moving from chore to bore.  Cinematographer Jonathan Sela bathes the screen in this mix of silver and platinum blonde color that makes other colors pop when they're introduced.  Problem is, the introduction of reds, purples, greens, or whatnot is delayed for so long that whether Atomic Blonde is currently in the present or past is not helped by the same cool colors washing over everything.

The cool colors line up all too well with the cheeky self-aware dialogue and terrible plot structure from Kurt Johnstad.  He's worked on both 300 films and Act of Valor, so I'm aware he knows his way around a fractured timeline, Atomic Blonde just has a dull setup.  Lorraine fingers David Percival (McAvoy) as the villain with the ink still wet on the opening credits, so the rest of Atomic Blonde is waiting around for every other character to catch up to what we in the audience already know.  The dialogue is often terrible with too many references to then-contemporary cultural touchstones (jokes about Sinead O'Connor and David Hasselhoff resulted only in groans) and everyone talking in spy double-to-triplespeak that's so flat it was parodied effectively in one scene of The Shape of Water.

I am sorely tempted to read all this as a, "so bad it's good," bit of fun but it's just so dull. The Cold War setup feels like an excuse to use top hits of the '80s to underline the onscreen actions than complement them.  A particularly rough example of on-the-nose pairing comes when Lorraine flees a fight to the sounds of "I Ran (So Far Away)."  Other music choices, like the typically excellent HEALTH covering "Blue Monday", are jarringly anachronistic and the "I can do better" feeling returns with Kaledia - who provided "Think" for the great club shootout from John Wick - tasked with creating arguably the least essential tune in existence, a somber cover of "99 Luftballons."

What's sad about all this is when Leitch drops the self-conscious cool there's some great stuff in Atomic Blonde.  There's an unreliable narrator vibe made effectively clear in the editing of early scenes, especially when Lorraine insults CIA Agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) and the placid pacing is chopped up as everyone questions what she did or did not say.  Atomic Blonde hints at an unstuck in time feel with Lorraine in a Berlin of pop culture dreams.  This works best in one of Atomic Blonde's least eventful scenes as Lorraine chops up a watch for tiny clues to the sounds of Siouxsie & The Banshees.

If you're gonna lift visuals, lift from the best, and this ode to Roger Deakins' backlit fight from Skyfall works well.

Then there's the centerpiece of Atomic Blonde which, credit where it's earned, is one hell of a fight scene.  Leitch works like a pressure cooker as Lorraine fights in the hallways and doors of an abandoned building before spilling out onto the streets in 10 minutes of sustained action.  It's a self-conscious moment as any single-take (or scene with the appearance of a single-take), but the lighting stops flattening the colors into the same silvery sheen and Theron's skin wears the bruises and blood of battle in striking fashion.  This moment is so excellent it makes me wish Leitch directed Theron in a no-frills brawler instead of the spy thriller Atomic Blonde is.

10% of pure excellence and a smattering of inspired choices is better than most action films can muster.  Theron is capable, and she's so dynamic with so little dialogue I can see her wresting control away from Liam Neeson's action/thriller empire.  Still, John Wick went from great action film to a superior meditation on the spiritual exchange of violence.  Atomic Blonde shows Leitch has his own voice to work with, I just hope he has more confidence in that and less of a need to throw sex and buckets of "cool" onto the screen next time.

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Atomic Blonde (2017)

Directed by David Leitch.
Screenplay written by Kurt Johnstad.
Starring Charlize Theron.

Posted by Andrew

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