Atomic Blonde (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some movies exist as an exercise of style over substance and David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, is clearly an example of such an approach. One way to enjoy this surprisingly visually impressive film is this: tune out during the would-be mysterious verbal exchanges since it is clearly not the material’s forté (which can be concluded about thirty minutes in) and pay close attention during the flinch-inducing action sequences—not just on the violence but how they are executed. They must have taken weeks to plan out, choreograph, and execute. In the middle of all the wonderful chaos, I could not help but wonder how many perfectly good pieces of furniture they destroyed just for the sake of our entertainment.
The familiar plot, inessential if one so chooses, involves an MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being assigned to Berlin to acquire a watch that contains invaluable information regarding the identities of secret agents working from both sides of the wall. Before her departure, her superiors warn that she trusts no one during this most sensitive assignment. From the moment she steps outside the airport, KGB agents ambush her. Viewers experienced with the genre will smell a mole hunt from a mile away, but the visual style of the film keeps it fresh.
There is a look of detachment to the picture which is interesting because it wishes to pique our interest in its world of spies and secrecy. Scenes shot outdoors almost always look cold and gray. Bluish shades dominate, pale skins nondescript, emotionless. Appropriately, East Berlin looks depressing, a hole of misery and corruption. It is only slightly better indoors, whether it be inside a hotel room, a club, or a warehouse, there is an aura of impersonality. Even the living space of Lorraine’s contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), despite being filled with books, magazines, and other collectibles, many of them considered illegal in East Berlin, these items do not look to have been touched or read. Except for the alcohol bottles. Percival’s relationship with spirits likens that of fish in water.
But the centerpiece is clearly the well-executed action sequences. Most impressive is perhaps the drawn-out scene involving Lorraine and a bleeding man being stuck in an apartment complex as protests for freedom rage on outside. The seemingly interminable line of thugs entering the facility, the lack of score or soundtrack, the shattering of glass and numerous appliances, crushing of bones, bullets to the face, chokeholds… all build up to an intense and exhausting visual splendor of violence. I enjoyed that it is strives to deliver Class A entertainment but does not sugarcoat the fact that violence is extremely ugly, gory, and painful. Characters simply do not walk away unharmed. I admired that the film is willing to show Lorraine bruised and battered when it would have been far easier to keep Theron physically beautiful and alluring all the time.
“Atomic Blonde” is a kinetic, hyper-physical, muscular action-thriller. It might have been a stronger work overall had screenwriter Kurt Johnstad taken more of a risk either by minimizing or removing altogether the official meeting between agents and superiors and focused on the protagonist navigating her way through her increasingly complex assignment. It is particularly challenging to establish a suffocating air of paranoia when the picture is divided into two timelines: before and after the mission. During these meetings, on occasion, they tell more than show and this is toxic to aspiring adrenaline-fueled action pictures. But because nearly everything else about the film is strong, it manages to rise above such shortcomings.