Monday, August 14, 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and sexuality/nudity

Score: 4 out of 5

One of the early scenes in Atomic Blonde is a highly stylish one of Charlize Theron naked in a bathtub. Unlike most films that might feature such a scene, the intent here is not to show off the fact that she is hot (though it does do that, if only because it's unavoidable when you've got a naked Charlize on screen), but to show all of the bruises and injuries that she picked up on her latest assignment, including a black eye and a split lip on her pretty face. That scene is Atomic Blonde in a nutshell, the latest from John Wick co-creator David Leitch and a film cut from much the same cloth, even if calling it "the female John Wick" is a bit of an oversimplification. Tackling an espionage story rather than a crime story, this film, adapted from the graphic novel The Coldest City, is a furious mix of beauty and brutality that combines retro '80s flair, a twisting spy movie storyline, and a potent handful of knockout action scenes, all anchored by a great performance from Theron.

Set in Berlin in November 1989, against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall, our story follows Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), an MI6 agent sent over for one of the last jobs of the Cold War. Recounting what happened in flashbacks via her debriefing back home, we find that she had been sent to find a list of every active field agent operating in the Eastern bloc, working with fellow MI6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and a French spy/love interest named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) to smuggle the list to the West. What happened was a maze of double-crosses, double and triple agents, and paranoia that should be familiar to anybody who's familiar with these sorts of gritty spy movies, interspersed with a handful of violent beatdowns inflicted by Lorraine on anybody who tries to stop her.

Charlize Theron is the film's centerpiece as Lorraine, a secret agent who behaves like a female version of James Bond (if not Sean Connery, then certainly Daniel Craig): tough-talking, glamorously-dressed, taking no shit, and humping anything that moves, male or female, as seen when her handlers react with mild embarrassment as she recounts "making contact" with Delphine. She does her own stunts here, and it shows, as she proves herself capable of hanging tough with any male action hero. While her Lorraine is often outmatched when fighting bigger, tougher opponents, as seen in the growing number of bruises she racks up over the course of the film, she makes up for it with craftiness, relying on speed, cunning, and anything she can get her hands on to pummel her foes into submission. She manages to come across as a badass without ever feeling invincible, pushing her way through an assortment of bad guys while trying to keep herself and those around her safe in a city that wants them dead. Speaking of those around her, the supporting cast lends itself well to the film, never outshining Lorraine but all of them compelling in their own right. James McAvoy does his best James McAvoy as David, Toby Jones and John Goodman do a good job grilling Lorraine during her debriefing, and last but certainly not least, Sofia Boutella plays the "Bond girl" well, her rookie spy Delphine coming across as horrifically out of her depth in a volatile situation while serving as Lorraine's emotional anchor.

The plot of the film is fairly by-the-numbers if you've seen this sort of spy movie before, with everybody having a hidden agenda and nobody, not even the protagonist, being who they seem at first glance. Where it truly takes off is in capturing the feel of the very late '80s, the time when the Wall was coming down and the Soviet Union, once seen as an unstoppable bogeyman, was suddenly placed on a death watch. The soundtrack is littered with sleek New Wave hits that give an added punch to the action, the obligatory David Hasselhoff references are made, and the entire affair is cut through with a sense, not at all lost on the characters themselves, that none of this really matters. In two years, there will be no more KGB to menace MI6. The Free World will stand triumphant over the Reds, there will be a McDonald's in Moscow, and it will be, as Francis Fukuyama called it, "the end of history". Of course, we know that the world will still turn, and that intelligence agencies, far from being rendered irrelevant by the end of the Cold War, will become more relevant than ever, as they will still have the awful secrets that they built their nations' dominance on. A quote by one character says as much at the end, in a way that can't help but bring to mind the NSA.

The main selling point, of course, is the action scenes. While fewer in number than in the John Wick films, they are no less fun to watch. They feel kinetic without being chaotic, they are boosted by a great soundtrack of late '80s pop music, and they confirm director David Leitch as one of the best pure action filmmakers working today. The one scene everybody talks about with this film is the climatic apartment fight, cut to look like a long, single take as Lorraine fights her way through an apartment building and down its stairwell, going hand-to-hand and pistol-to-pistol with a horde of armed goons while she protects a man under her care. Note that this scene came after one that I was sure the film wouldn't be able to top, in which everything that Lorraine can get her hands on is used to devastating effect. That's a pretty good description of the film's action scenes as a whole: once you think you've seen just how much badassery it can pack into one fight or shootout, it proves you wrong and takes it to the next level.

The Bottom Line

A great follow-up and companion to John Wick that, while slower and more cerebral than that film, is no less of an action trip. Don't miss it.

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