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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

* * *

Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy

Atomic Blonde is less a movie than it is a soundtrack but, lord, what a soundtrack. A slick, bone-crunching action movie that aspires to little more than being cool as hell and succeeds at that with ease, this adaptation of the graphic novel "The Coldest City" is the sort of pulse-pumping, fleeting entertainment that the summer movie season was made for. Directed by David Leitch, director of the first John Wick film and a former stunt man, Blonde delivers one of the more realistic depictions of violence seen in cinema, to say nothing of one of the most relentless. This isn't the best movie I've seen all summer, but I can't say that it didn't deliver on exactly what its trailers promised: action, '80s music, Charlize Theron in all her badass glory, and style, style, style.

The year is 1989 and the place is Berlin, where the Wall is about to come down and MI6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) has in his possession a list of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. After Gasciogne is murdered and the list stolen, MI6 sends agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to collect Gasciogne's body and recover the list with the help of David Percival (James McAvoy), the agency's man in Berlin who has, Lorraine's superiors remark, "gone feral" during his years navigating both sides of the wall. Told to trust no one, Lorraine finds little reason to trust anyone when she gets to Berlin, is immediately identified by the Soviets, discovers that Percival isn't the most reliable of partners, and realizes that a woman is following her. Several brutal hand-to-hand fights, a car chase, and a double cross or two later she's back in London, forced to recount how her operation went so very far off the rails. This interrogation is where the movie begins and what it keeps returning to as MI6 and the CIA try to unwind a story which includes a double agent code-named "Satchel."

Although the film has plenty of action, the sequence it's likely to be remembered for is a long, savage fight between Lorraine and several KGB agents that goes on for several minutes in what is made to appear as (but can't be, unless Theron is actually getting hit so that her face can get increasingly bloodied) an unbroken shot and leaves Lorraine and her combatants breathless and barely standing but determined to keep going to the bitter end. The stunt choreography of the sequence is outstanding, but it's the way that Leitch and the cast have conceived and executed it that makes it so extraordinary. So often in action movies characters take a beating (or a bullet) and then stand back up and shrug it off, none the worse for it. In Atomic Blonde you see the wear and tear and this sequence in particular ends not with a witty quip followed by a death blow, but with two fighters staggering back to their feet, trying to catch their breath, bracing themselves for the final stage of the fight. The story of the fight is written not just in blood shed, but in the bone deep exhaustion of its participants, and no one takes or dishes out more than Theron.

Surrounding Theron in this brutish ballet are Toby Jones and John Goodman as Broughton's MI6 handler and a CIA liaison, respectively, Eddie Marsan as a Soviet defector, and Sofia Boutella as the expendable love interest demanded by the genre, who is either the dumbest spy ever or simply the worst-trained. But Theron's real co-star is the mood of the piece, created by the gloomy industrial look, punched up with the occasional appearance of neon colors (mostly pink and green), and the music, which is even more unremitting than the action. The soundtrack of the film is omnipresent, finding an '80s hit for every occasion and playing as if the filmmakers loaded a roll of quarters into a jukebox and then sat back to let the stream of music do the heavy lifting in terms of setting the tempo from scene to scene. This isn't a complaint, by the way, as far as I'm concerned anytime is a good time to hear "Voices Carry," and it works because the film's focus is more on being cool than on telling a story, but the music is so foregrounded that it does sometimes feel like you're listening to someone with ADD shuffling through their iPod.

As for the story... well, I don't know. It's one of those narratives that's so twisty that by the time you get to that last turn, nothing about the story really matters anymore because you can only retcon so many times before everything loses its meaning. Blonde is entertaining nevertheless, and I'm sure that if I saw it again I would have an easier time making sense of it on a story level, but it was definitely a "brain off, appreciate it on a visceral level" kind of watch for me. There's a certain satisfaction to be had in that kind of movie and Atomic Blonde delivers that in spades. But damn if it doesn't make me antsy for that rumored Furiosa movie. C'mon George Miller, none of us is getting any younger.

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