Atomic BlondeReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/27/17 07:10:15
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Atomic Blonde" is an odd duck, a Cold War spy movie that probably couldn't be made until after the Berlin Wall fell, and which is so dominated by a few extraordinary action scenes that the double-dealing and betrayal almost becomes a side note. That's not a bad choice at all - the story is one more game of spy v. spy that's not going to stick in one's memory, but those fights in the middle of East German apartment buildings are ones to rewatch.The time is November 1989, and though the Berlin Wall will still come down, that in some ways makes the activity going on by the world's intelligence agencies even more frantic as they race toward an uncertain future. British agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) has recently acquired a list of all known agents in Europe from a source, but he is killed by Soviet agent Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) and the list - stored inside a Swiss watch - stolen. Bakhtin intends to sell it, but MI-6 is sending agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) in to find and retrieve it, with loose-cannon station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) providing support. Complicating things are a young French agent (Sofia Boutella) endeavoring to look over their shoulders, the Stasi agent who provided the list (Eddie Marsan) saying he has it memorized and therefore needs immediate exfiltration for himself and his family, and word that it will reveal the name of a highly-placed double agent.
This is all told in flashback as Lorraine is debriefed in London, apparently as an excuse to have Toby Jones and John Goodman as her interrogators, and it's sometimes a weird way to go about it - there's little that is actually revealed or explained during the interrogation scenes, and while it seems likely that she will reveal that one of them (or one of the folks on the other side of the two-way mirror) is the traitor, not much is done to tease that possibility beyond the audience basically knowing how spy movies work. They do, perhaps, serve another purpose - while these scenes don't quite bring the Berlin action to a crashing halt, they are somewhat useful reminders that the filmmakers have a moody, morally-ambivalent spy story going on in the middle of the bombastic 1980s nostalgia and action.
Maybe "nostalgia" isn't quite the right word for the way that director David Leitch and his crew treat the late-1980s setting, but they lean hard on the period accoutrements, making darn sure that everybody is dressed in the most garish but somehow stylish clothes to be found in a Berlin disco during that period rather than something gray (or black) and invisible, while the soundtrack leans heavily on the decade's most memorably dated hits. It's sometimes a little much - the inevitable sound of "99 Luftballons" on the soundtrack is on-the-nose enough for the reaction to be more "of course they went there" than "hey, great song for this scene" - but it's certainly eye-catching and serves as a nice reflection of the real-life events unfolding nearby, as history is being made less by James Bond in his tux or bureaucrats in their gray suits than young people standing up for themselves.
The spy characters are still necessarily ciphers at times, though. Charlize Theron's Lorraine is cool and sexy and completely confident that she's the smartest person in almost every room, but can't help but feel like an empty vessel, giving little indication of just what makes her tick, with fierceness and physicality admittedly a decent substitute. You get a little more characterization out of James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan as her allies, with McAvoy given a lot of the best non-fight material as the spy who has embraced his job's need for amorality and who seems to be having fun sneaking under the wall to buy off East Germans with the fruits of capitalism.
Then again, Lorraine and the film both seem to come to life when the film dives into its action sequences, and former stuntman David Leitch probably gives the fight choreography and other stuntwork a heck of a lot more consideration than many directors would. The result is immediately apparent on-screen, with long takes showing just what Theron and stunt double Monique Ganderton, as well as the rest of the cast, are pulling off, getting across just how bruising and exhausting smashing through a bunch of physically larger enemies can be while never losing track of what's going on. He pointedly uses the setting to his advantage - everything in 1989 East Berlin seems to be made of metal rather than the plastic of later years, and as such looks like it hurts when it hits, while the lightweight East German cars get tossed about in really satisfying ways during chases (probably in large part CGI, but done well).Is anybody going to particularly care who the double agent is by the end of "Atomic Blonde"? Not likely. Are they going to be talking about the brutal gauntlet Lorraine has to run to get "Spyglass" out of the city, and wishing that more action movies had something that thrilling? Yes, absolutely; it's fantastic, the sort of material that elevates spies moving pawns around a chessboard into something thrilling and definitely worth checking out.
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