FILM REVIEW: Charlize Theron A Knock-out In Otherwise Clunky ATOMIC BLONDE
Early on in her action movie Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron’s character Lorraine, a top-level MI-6 spy on a mission to kill at the conclusion of the Cold War, is shown bruised, battered, and bloodied, on her way to an ice bath purportedly to mend her wounds. The film announces its presence with those bona fides and on the authority of an opening sequence in which a hapless Western spy is hit violently and graphically by a car onto a windshield and then killed for reasons unknown. So you know you are in for a physical, grueling experience, and that is what you get. But, other than Theron’s stupendous performance as the titular character there is not much there there to David Leitch’s bubbly action movie. A film so full of bells and so loud with whistles can and does become more a cacophony of noise than a dazzling, shiny new object.
Leitch of course has experience with this type of film, having directed the John Wick series upon which people have been foisting comparisons. He’s also at the head of Deadpool 2, so you can sort of guess what the style for this one will be like. Irreverent, violent, in your face, shocking, surprising. It’s entertaining when it is clever but mostly tedious when, like in Atomic Blonde, it’s just trying too hard.
Lorraine is quickly thrust into a convoluted web of backstabs, betrayals, and double-crosses that may James Bond look like playing bridge. It begins with her being interrogated, to recount what went wrong with her East Berlin assignment, Mission: Impossible style. You soon learn she was supposed to figure out why the spook was offed, and recover an important “list” disclosing the identity of Western resources. I suppose there were no leaks back in 1989, the moment when the movie is set, as the Berlin Wall crumbles around the bulging plot. Lorraine is connected to David Percival, played by a sneering James McAvoy, and becomes quickly allied with a French spy named Delphine (Sofia Boutella, who is everywhere these days it seems) with whom she develops a sort of intimate relationship.
Atomic Blonde has a lot going for it—you really cannot overstate how much of a pleasure it is to watch Theron work, between grunts and gasps but also between her seemingly perpetual pursed lips, the unending look of both indifference but also desire. Only she can so effectively be simultaneously disinterested and seductive with her exquisite looks. And when she gets to kicking some bad guy butt, you really can’t compare her. Though clearly some of it is with the use of a stunt double, her commitment to the role is palpable and admirable. Move over Angelina Jolie.
And the 1980s setting provides the movie it’s other best asset, the fun that they clearly had recreating what now seem shockingly aged sets and outfits, all to the tone of some of your 1980s favorite tunes, Depeche Mode and all.
But, after a while, Atomic Blonde becomes its own worst enemy and overbakes itself until it’s more of an atomic burger than an atomic blonde. After the second, the third, the fourth sequence in which loud 80s music is used both to telegraph what is happening and be ironic about it, to drown out the noise but to justify the louder pitter patter of punch, stab, and grunt, you simply grow bored and then annoyed. Do they really have no other trick up their sleeve?
I realize the irony of me requesting subtlety from the genre, from a film in which brains get plastered onto walls with gunshots and in which people are stabbed graphically with everything from keys to screwdrivers and ice picks. But Leitch actually thought he was being clever by sprinkling the film with supposedly restrained jokes and delicate winks to the watchful audience member. But it does not quite work that way. Obvious shots of Machiavelli’s books, references to a Soviet-era movie called “Stalker,” and a character stating “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that shirt” to another, all betray the imagined restraint that actually devolved into over-exposition.
What is the point of the endless neon coloring, enthralling at first and tiring by the end of it? Of the aerial or 360 shots, some starting upside down, of the characters laying here or there? Of the supposedly cute little title cards that seems like spray paint used to emulate blood? None of it achieves anything other than to announce its presence, to remind us that the director knows how to move the camera around.
Worst still is that the plot has as many holes and incongruities as the skulls of the KGB and Stasi members after Lorraine is through with them. One knows that secrets, twists, and revelations are part and parcel of this type of film, but Atomic Blonde does not even attempt to make it difficult to guess exactly where things are going. None of this is hidden even by the convoluted architecture of four or five different endings, each with a new “surprise” or “reveal.” Really, you’ll see it coming from miles away even if you don’t see exactly where she will throw the punches.
In the final analysis, Atomic Blonde is a pretty unimaginative movie buoyed by a superstar that makes it perhaps one full grade better than it otherwise would be. There is not a moment in the film that Charlize is on screen that is not delightful—and thankfully she’s basically in every scene—so I doubt fans will be disappointed as they leave the theater. They may just be annoyed that her surroundings could not live up to her own talents, which I suppose is the usual outcome in the John Wick type of movie anyway. Mission accomplished.