About halfway through Atomic Blonde there is a genuinely stunning action sequence that unfolds in real time in what appears to be a single tracking shot. The protagonist, an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is in Cold War-divided Berlin trying to help an asset escape from the East to the West, and she finds herself in an apartment building protecting herself and the asset by fighting off half a dozen armed Russian assassins. Most of the action unfolds in a stairwell, and the camera remains tethered to Broughton as she engages the assassins in hand-to-hand combat using everything at her disposal, including virtually every hard edge of her body, a knife, several guns, a lamp, and a hotplate. It is a genuinely astonishing, bravura-brutal sequence that is all the more exhilarating and punishing for its relentless sense of progression. Broughton is fierce and furious in action—we have already seen this in several previous fight sequences—but she is also human, so she slowly tires from both physical exertion and blood loss, and by the end of the sequence she is barely standing, much less throwing punches and or swiping legs.
If only the rest of the film were so good. Directed by stunt/fight coordinator-turned-filmmaker David Leitch, who previously co-directed John Wick (2014), Atomic Blonde has style to spare and a canonic soundtrack of ’80s New Wave pop, which is used primarily to paper over a tired espionage plot and paper-thin characters. Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela (a veteran of John Wick and many a Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Kanye West music video) turn every sequence into its own hyper-stylized cartoon, which range from grungy desaturation, to intensely neon-lit interiors that are reminiscent of either Italian gialli or a disco (or both). The film is all slick and heady surface, and as long as you give in to the intoxication of the visuals, you might be distracted enough to ignore the grinding plot machinations and lack of genuine character appeal.
This is not to say that the actors don’t give it their all. As Broughton, Theron has a tricky assignment in portraying a hardened, tough-as-nails veteran agent while still maintaining some sense of humanity. Unfortunately, she leans heavily on the former with a lot of hard stares and low-voiced dialogue, which is effective in suggesting a world-weary sense of toughness; her humanity is reserved largely for the steamy relationship she develops with a relatively naïve French agent named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), which unfortunately plays more like a cheap soft-core interlude than real human connection. The script by Kurt Johnstad (300), which is based on the graphic novel series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, is mostly perfunctory, with dialogue and action constantly moving things forward, but without any sense of eloquence or wit (the title change, which sacrifices subtle literary inflection of the word cold for bold exploitation marquee value, is telling).
The plot, which is set in November of 1989 just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is structured around an interview, in which Broughton, bearing all the bruises and cuts from the forthcoming action sequences, recounts her experience in Berlin trying to move an asset named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has memorized an important list, to an officious MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a corrupt CIA agent (John Goodman). A significant part of the story involves Broughton’s work with David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow MI6 agent who has been embedded in the Berlin underworld for so long that his superiors are afraid that he has “gone native,” so to speak, and lost any sense of his true purpose. McAvoy injects some life and danger into the proceedings, but it’s ultimately not enough to save Atomic Blonde from its own world-weary sense of familiarity.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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