2017 | rated R | starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella | directed by David Leitch | 1hr 55mins
Studio Pitch: Female action heroes are big and 80s nostalgia is big, but what if we also had a comic book with both!
In 2014, John Wick scratched an itch action movie fans have had since the genre was over-saturated with a style of shaky-camera quick-cuts obscuring our view of watching heroes doing real stunts that had gone unchecked for far too long. The film required committed stars, real choreography and seemingly single-take shots that dropped us in the middle of the bone-crunching stunt-work instead of creating it in the editing bay. When Wick director Chad Stahelski went on to continue the franchise, uncredited co-director David Leitch branched out to his own potential franchise, the 80s world of Atomic Blonde.
Set against the fall of the Berlin wall, Blonde introduces us to Lorraine Broughton, a British spy going deep cover behind soviet lines to retrieve a stolen list of CIA and MI-6 agents before it gets sold to the highest bidding terrorist (basically the NOC list from the first Mission: Impossible film). Broughton is cold, cunning and emotionless in a James Bond sort of way where starting to feel for someone might get her killed. Theron plays her steely-eyed reserve just right and fully commits to a series of punishing fight scenes. She gets a leg up on her attackers, not by out muscling them necessarily, but with speed, invention and sheer determination. Outlasting thugs while the two beat each other to the point of exhaustion.
This was one of my most anticipated movies of this year (it had a magnificent trailer) and yet I sat and watched that thrill fade with one misguided stylistic choice after another. First of all, Leitch knows his action. There is no denying that and the choreography here is beautiful enough to warrant a watch from an action fan on a pure technical level. But Leitch also can’t help but go to the 80s nostalgia well time and again. The synth score is great. Dropping in only the most obvious hits of the 80s is one thing, but dropping them over your fight scenes critically undercuts their tension. The whole appeal of these John Wick-style fights is that they aren’t the over-stylized comic book action. They’re raw and fierce and desperate. Cute ironic music cues kick the legs out from under that and mute their power. The first time it happened I felt a sinking feeling, the 2nd and 3rd time I started mentally checking out. That point is no better made then later in the film when Leitch and Theron pull of what will be hard to beat for the year’s best action sequence – a raid on an apartment building where Theron fights off thugs in a stairwell, in an apartment and then out into the street. The sequence is all the more impactful because it is only scored with the sounds of punching, bone-crunching and characters catching their breath. It’s fantastic! Imagine if the rest of the movie were like this.
Another point, the movie is framed around Lorraine being interrogated, a pretty tired narrative trope that allows it to drop in and out of the past and the present, stuttering it’s pace and making room for twists that don’t pay off in any substantive way. The movie has about 2 twists too many, one that almost folds the movie in on itself in the final minutes.
While Lorraine’s soft, weak spot is the novice French operative she meets (Sophia Boutella, The Mummy) it’s James McAvoy who is put to the forefront as her untrustworthy partner. The story is pretty thin and with Lorraine kept at arms reach by design that leaves McAvoy to pick up the slack in the character intrigue department. The screenplay works overtime to get us wondering about his true alliances. This is a spy film after all. Pulling this off requires an actor to be so charming they have to be hiding something. As written McAvoy’s character is just obnoxious. He has to be interesting on some level before we care if he’s a sleazy patriot or a ruthless killer.
Atomic Blonde is a stylistic achievement. It’s world has that delicious, rich, look of a comic book come to life. It’s style over substance where the style is impressive. Another step toward Leitch as a director and Theron as an actor – paying off a career star turn in Mad Max: Fury Road – toward a new generation of action movie supremacy.