Review: "Atomic Blonde" (2017)
Title: Atomic Blonde (2017)
Director: David Leitch
Stars (primary actors): Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, John Goodman, Toby Jones
Bias: I’m a huge fan of John Wick and John Wick 2, and Leitch was the uncredited co-director of the first film.
In A Nutshell: It’s the twilight of the Cold War, and a British secret agent, in possession of a list of agents, is murdered. Lorraine Broughten (Theron) is sent to meet up with the British chief of the Berlin Bureau (played by McAvoy) in order to track down the list before it falls into enemy hands, while also working to discover the identity of a double agent.
The Critique: This is such a frustrating film, but I’ll start with what I liked about it. First, Charlize Theron absolutely owns the screen. Following her incredible performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, she plays a woman for whom secrets and deception are second nature and conveys that in every interaction. There are multiple layers to Broughten – many of which live more in her performance than in the screenplay. Beyond the emotions she plays (and we see her at her most lethal and most vulnerable, often in the same moments) she very obviously performs a majority of the action herself, adding another layer of believability to her performance.
Speaking of the action, if I were grading on that alone, this would easily be an A+ film. While stylistically similar to the John Wick films, there is a level of brutality and realism to them that becomes, at times, difficult to watch. Where John Wick coolly and efficiently dispatches his opponents with guns, much of the combat in Blonde is hand to hand, with the characters broken, bloody, and barely standing as they look for the opportunity to finish each other off. The highlight of the film features Broughten taking on a handful of KGB agents in an abandoned building, fighting in multiple rooms, and moving up and down stairs. Leitch shoots the several-minute-long sequence as a single take (although I’m pretty sure there were a few hidden cuts). It’s exciting and exhausting, and possibly the best fight scene I’ve ever seen in a film.
Unfortunately, the screenplay takes a fairly simple premise, and tries to make it more complicated than it needs to be. Broughten is being debriefed throughout the film by her superiors (Jones and Goodman) As such, Leitch repeatedly cuts back to the debriefing far too often, which brings the film grinding to a halt every time. We’re never afraid for Broughten because we know she’s there telling them the story. The reason for it seems to be to add a layer of mystery to the narrative – there are moments where she clearly tells them something that we see isn’t true – but that leads directly to the next problem.
There are probably four twists too many in the film. It’s a spy thriller, so double-crosses and betrayals are par for the course, but here it feels like the filmmakers are trying to be far too clever. If the characters were better-developed it might work, but much of the time the motivation is revealed after the action, and it feels like an afterthought.
Shout-out: The film looks gorgeous. I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but the lighting and colors are evocative of Tony Scott films, which works perfectly for the genre and 1980s setting.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: It’s worth seeing for the action alone, but a rental or cheap matinee would do.