Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Atomic Blonde: A Review (Spoilers)

In Uncategorized on August 11, 2017 at 9:29 pm

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When Atomic Blonde debuted at SXSW last year, it was greeted with resounding enthusiasm. Its marketing showed a stylish, bone-crunching action-thriller that put a strong woman at the center and featured similarly mind-bending action sequences to John Wick, the current action film high water mark. The final product is not quite the female John Wick we’d been lead to believe, but it gets very close with its intense fight choreography and stunts that pile up amid a neon-drenched spy film set in 1989 Berlin.

Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a spy for MI6 dispatched to East Berlin to track down the killer of another British agent and retrieve a document that was stolen from him that contains the identity of every double agent employed by MI6, the CIA, and the KGB. She teams up with the Berlin agent, Percival (James McAvoy), and has multiple run-ins with a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella), with whom she develops a romantic relationship. The main plot involves Lorraine’s attempts to find the list and get both it and the Stasi officer (Eddie Marsan) who stole it across the border and into the West. But things get complicated and plans go sideways and (of course) the movie takes its fair share of twists and turns. While admittedly a bit light on plot, the film succeeds in its excessive flair and immerses viewers in a highly stylized 1980s Berlin set to a thumping soundtrack of New Wave and Post-Punk tracks that are, quite frankly, louder and more bombastic than I’ve ever heard them, foregrounded at almost every turn in the film’s sound mix. I think this is a good thing.

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The cast is quite good. Charlize Theron is one of my favorite movie stars, with a rather amazing streak of interesting and captivating projects since her turn as the acidic Mavis Gary in 2011’s Young Adult. Here she plays Lorraine as a combination of sly and cunning with her real motivations close to the vest. She’s at turns playful and friendly, while at others she is strong and ruthless. Sofia Boutella is on a bit of a tear herself, delivering on the promise of her first major roles in Kingsman: The Secret Service and last year’s Star Trek Beyond as new Starfleet member Jaylah. While The Mummy was a bit of a misstep for her, that film’s problems were entirely unrelated to her performance, and she has come through unscathed and with a strong showing here as Lorraine’s love interest and co-conspirator. The always-entertaining James McAvoy is great as an MI6 agent in Berlin who may or may not have gone rogue and turned on his own organization, and John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Bill Skarsgård all deliver nice little performances in a movie awash with capable men but anchored entirely by the woman in charge.

Cinematographer Jonathan Sela delivers his best work since the criminally under-seen Midnight Meat Train, surpassing even John Wick in his usage of rich, lush color and a combination of sleek, stylized lighting rigs to set every scene for maximum impact. I am serious when I say that the most highly stylized cinematographic sequences in Atomic Blonde rival even the amazing Natasha Braier’s work on last year’s The Neon Demon, which had far and away the most mind-blowing images to be given life on a theater screen in 2016. The combination of a rich, neon inflected color palette with the traditional representation of East Berlin as a vast wasteland of Soviet gray creates a nice contrast for some of the more passionate elements of Lorraine’s mission and the stark brutality of her capabilities as a field agent.

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Those going into this film looking for a non-stop action spectacle like the John Wick films may find themselves a little disappointed in how sparsely populated Atomic Blonde is with lengthy choreography in its middle third. But the earliest sequences–including close quarters combat in a car and a slightly protracted battle with the Stasi in an apartment building using a length of hose–prep the audience for a small break to catch their breath and relax while getting to know the characters a bit more. And patience pays off in the finale, a jaw-dropping ten minute sequence that sees Lorraine attempting to smuggle an asset and his family across the border to West Berlin for extraction, which begins in a crowded street protest, moves to the stairway of an apartment building, then to a single apartment, and finally to a car chase. The action flows seamlessly, and the violence is presented as realistically as possible, with Lorraine and her various adversaries slowly being worn down until only the strongest will survive.

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While not a perfect film–the plot is a bit thin, and the love interest is underdeveloped even as Delphine is sacrificed as a plot device for the main character (thus continuing the rather problematic trope of using LGBTQ characters as plot elements to further other characters’ stories)–Atomic Blonde was immensely enjoyable. And its problematic gender and sexual politics are also complicated by their complete immersion in the tropes and conventions of the spy genre’s twisting plots, double-crosses, and the constant death of others due to the main character’s actions or the attempts of their enemies to take vengeance on them. The film’s action sequences are as strong as John Wick‘s in my opinion, a simple marvel to behold that takes viewers on a ride that is as thrilling as any I’ve had in the theater. Truth be told, for fans of action and spy films, Atomic Blonde kicks some serious ass.

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