Sunday, 27 August 2017

Atomic Blonde (2017) - Movie Review

Over the past couple years, mainly off the back of the now-legendary Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron has become the female action icon that, honestly, we need right now. I know that this might sound a bit reactionary after the pleasant success of Wonder Woman, and especially in light of certain… comments that have been made about it recently, but we don’t really have a lot of bankable female action heroes right now. Not to say that they just don’t exist (hell, I’ve been singing Scarlett Johansson’s praises for a while now) but I specify “bankable” because money talks and we’re still in this weird position of hesitance in letting these actors get their fair share. So, in light of another widely-popular action reinvention in the form of the John Wick movies, Theron tapped Wick co-director David Leitch to give her a fighting chance. Does that chance pay off?

The plot: In the final days of the Cold War, a botched transaction set up by MI6 and the CIA has resulted in a top-secret list of field agents being unaccounted for, putting every field agent behind enemy lines in danger. Allied agent Lorraine (Charlize Theron) is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve the list before it reaches the hands of Satchel, a double agent suspected of selling secrets to the Soviets. However, once she touches down and makes contact with undercover MI6 agent Percival (James McAvoy), it seems that her mission is about to get a whole lot rougher.

Even considering how impressed I was with Theron’s performances in Fury Road and even Fate Of The Furious from earlier this year, I am kind of floored by how good she is here. Personifying stone-cold efficiency and wearing the more “hidden in plain sight” type of spy capering like she was born to do it, Theron makes for a very exciting presence on screen. Bonus points for giving us probably the best bisexual icon of the last several years, all without falling into the promiscuity trap that a lot of other depictions of bisexual women end up in. McAvoy is clearly having a lot of fun with his character here, resulting in a very shifty and sly counterpoint to Theron for most of the film. Toby Jones and John Goodman do alright in their interrogatory roles, Marsan brings a touch of grounding to a film full of bombast, and Roland Møller makes for an intimidating, if somewhat underused, villainous foil.

After seeing how well John Wick co-director Chad Stahelski did with that film’s sequel, it’s relieving that David Leitch is able to helm a film on his own like this. The visuals squeeze in a bit of 80’s punk influence (along with a few pieces of pop culture that could be classified as punk and anti-authoritarian like Public Enemy), but it’s mainly the colour palette that is the most consistently striking here. It carries the same tricks Leitch brought to Wick’s debut, using distinct colours to separate each locale and almost giving them each a different character to play within the story. Hell, there’s even a location that would fit right at home in the world of the Continental with the shop of Til Schweiger’s Watchmaker.
However, the main colour that sticks out is how white this film looks. The white landscape of the Berlin streets, the snow, the cold; fitting that a film set at the tail-end of the Cold War would look as icy as this. By essentially using blinding white negative space as the thread that connects the more colourful areas together (the gold sheen of the Watchmaker’s shop, the burning red to back Lorraine “making contact” with Sofia Boutella’s Delphine, the dusk blue of Lorraine’s home), it gives the feel of something Frank Miller would have drawn in his prime. Again, fitting since this is adapted from a graphic novel.

But enough about the pretty colours; what about the fighting? Well, I’ll put it this way: Deadpool 2 is in very, very good hands because this has some seriously impressive action beats. I don’t want to keep making references to it but, in its own way, this film is a contrast to John Wick; mainly, the mindset of the main character that we see through their fighting style. John had time to prepare and often read his enemies’ movements to make his next attack. Lorraine, in her own words, was thrown into the hornet’s nest; from the instant she touched down, she’s kept in the dark by those around her. She has to think on her feet and get creative. Basically, Wick worked with his enemies while Lorraine works with her environment. Rope, shoes, a set of keys, a cupboard door, a turntable; if it can do some damage, she uses it in the fight and it is incredibly satisfying.
Then we get into the main action set piece of the film, where the majority of the damage gets done, and my brain goes kablooey. While the fighting itself is quite thrilling, and Theron definitely sells every punch and bruise she gives and gets in return, the entire scene is done in one take. One-take action scenes aren’t exactly the easiest things to do, not the least of which because it can often make the choreography a little too obvious. But here, the fact that it’s all in real-time makes the impending danger and every blow that connects have that much more impact. If it seems weird that I’m highlighting this moment so much, understand that this is in the running for the single best fight scene of any film I’ve covered so far. Like I said, very good hands.

It feels weird to be talking about the actual visuals of a film for this long; I should get into the writing at some point, right? Well, here’s where we get a slight dip in quality. Last time I checked in with writer Kurt Johnstad, it was with the deliriously inept 300: Rise Of An Empire. Now, thankfully, Johnstad is working with a finished comic book to adapt from this time around, but I still wouldn’t call it the best thing ever. Espionage stories set during the Cold War have both the most potential for paranoia-driven antics, given the historical circumstances of said war, and also have been somewhat done to death like any other setting. Admittedly, the film does play around with the usual double and even triple-crossing nature of spy work, right down to being weirdly up-front about certain characters and how much they should be trusted.
However, it feels like some potentially neat ideas got lost in the shuffle somewhere. There’s hints of deeper purpose behind what we are seeing, like how undercover work can make an agent blur the line between their allies and their enemies and the emotional disconnection that that entails, but it never seems to go anywhere. To make matters worse, by the time we get to the obligatory shock ending reveal, the film employs so many twists as to lost coherency entirely. It’s still held together well through Theron and McAvoy’s performances, but the ultimate reason behind their characters’ actions feels unfortunately trivial. Then again, this film is definitely far more about the style than the substance, and in this case, one mostly compensates for the other.

All in all, while not exactly the most deft spy caper I’ve seen, the visual chops combined with the impressive acting on display from Theron and McAvoy result in a very fun action flick. Theron has proven that she can be an action lead, and quite an adept one at that, and Leitch has proven that he can helm a solid film on his own; get these people more work, for the love of all things good.

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