Skip to main content

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.


I haven’t read the graphic novel, but that shift in approach is essentially confirmed by its writer Antony Johnston (Kurt Johnstad is credited with the screenplay, previously of the 300 adaptation and its sequel), citing Leitch as askingWhat if we do a noir and instead of making it feel stark and monochrome, what if we saturated it with colour?” Johnston goes on to note “whereas the books are very stark and sober, the movie is all action and very saturated with colour. But the plot, the story, the characters, and even whole lines of dialogue in the movie are taken directly from the book”.


The knock-on of this works both ways. It means the deficiencies of the original plot – most evident during the picture’s middle-section – are thrown into relief. It also means that, with a consistently heightened tone, you’re never nursing the illusion that this represents a remotely believable rendition of Cold War Berlin; it can only be taken as hyper-stylised and somewhat detached from its environment and thus premise. John Wick created its own world with its own rules. Attempt a same approach with an existing milieu, and the fit isn’t quite so snug.


But that said, if you’re willing to immerse yourself in this faux-Berlin (and, for all its excess, they bothered to film there, partly, and pay attention to period details), Leitch’s package is irresistible. At the forefront is a magnificent Charlize Theron performance, commanding every scene of action or dialogue. It’s extra-cute icing on the cake to know she and Keanu sparred together while he was training for John Wick Chapter 2. Sure, the increasingly battered and beat up protagonist is nothing new – it’s been par for the course since Bourne and then appropriated by Bond – but Leitch’s action direction is relentless and uncompromising, and putting a (weaker) woman up against (more powerful) men and having her use her wits and strategies to vanquish them on each occasion makes for a visceral, enthralling experience.


Said altercations involve everything from guns and fists to garrottes, from corkscrews to portable stoves (an extra-amusing one, given the connecting sound effect) and a nifty dust-up silhouetted against a screening of Stalker (just because). Leitch has offered us enough dazzling moments prior to the major set piece of the extended stairwell sequence, one which goes on and on and on even after Theron’s Lorrain Broughton has despatched her initial antagonists, to the point of each opponent’s exhaustion (earlier, a wounded party has toppled backwards down the stairs, unable to continue). There’s also a pretty great car chase, getting us momentarily away from the hand-to-hand.


Atomic Blonde doesn’t make a huge deal out of gender-swapping the traditional agent, which is to its benefit. You do occasionally wonder at Broughton’s perma-stylish attire and bleached hair being a beacon to anyone with a beef with her – there was really no need to tip the KGB off to her presence – but then again, 007 shows up everywhere in a devastatingly trim suit, doesn’t he? Theron’s given a “Am I a bitch now?” comeback to a sexist villain she bests, but it’s a line that pays off the preceding duel. Which is more than some of the dialogue here (as for complaints about her struggling to hit an English accent, I can only say I didn’t find it distracting).


James McAvoy, as the second lead/villain, has clearly dived wholeheartedly into the David Percival role, the rogue MI6 man “gone feral”, and he’s a powerhouse. It’s the kind of part to place alongside his turns in Split and Filth, where more can only be more and restraint is simply not an option, not for a spy who has burrowed so deeply into a “comfortable” place and become so bewildered by the moral quagmire of his profession, he can only fall back on the rationalisation that it is all a game. That said, his parting “I fucking love Berlin!”, justifying his self-serving agenda, is a downright terrible line, and McAvoy couldn’t hope to make it work.


I’ve seen reviews complain about the framing device of the interview, but it worked fine for me, both as a punctuation of the Berlin scenes and in laying out the apparent agenda to stitch up Broughton. Toby Jones is formidably snippy as her snide persecutor (returning to the period from a genuine Le Carré adaptation in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie of a few years back). John Goodman has another decent role as the CIA contact and James Faulkner is effectively inscrutable as chief C (not M).


On the Berlin side, both sides, there are numerous notable players, amid the welter of KGB, French intelligence, Stasi, CIA and MI6, including Eddie Marsan in typically luckless form as Stasi defector Spyglass (Marsan has a profound ability to elicit sympathy for whatever terrible lot befalls him), Sofia Boutella as love interest Delphine (canny against-type casting, as after Kingsman and The Mummy you expect her to be a bad girl) and Bill Skarsgård (soon to be seen clowning around in It) as Broughton’s one trusted contact.


It’s curious that the picture ends up with such a convoluted resolution, as for much of the time it makes an effort to be unfussily straightforward in its trajectory. There isn’t much in the way of intrigue, other than an is-he-isn’t he in respect of Percival that is more when-will-he-be-revealed-for-definite than doubt. Leitch seems content to continually return to Broughton hanging around in clubs or bars waiting for her next set piece, or occasionally opting for a spot of sapphic distraction, while never far from her next drink, or smoke, or drink and smoke.


As such, the reveal that she is Satchel, and even more a triple agent to boot (or is she even a quadruple agent? Who knows where she’ll be reporting next after that meeting with Goodman’s Kurzfeld) doesn’t have the kind of jaw-dropping effect it probably ought. We haven’t been primed sufficiently for something surprising up the picture’s sleeve, so we’re not all that impressed to find something is. It might have been better, dare I say it, to have simply had Percival as Satchel and left it at that, since I’m unsure how much is actually gained from her murkiness (perhaps a second viewing will illuminate me and I’ll retract entirely).


And, while I got the gist of Lorraine’s dealings well enough, I have to admit, I wasn’t altogether quite clear what it was Percival told Bremovych (Roland Møller) that made him decide to dispose of her, since it can’t have been that she is Satchel as he knows that anyway (unless he also knows that Satchel is a triple agent, working for the CIA and so feeding them crap intel – quite a rigorous dump of data on this list, if so). Perhaps more pertinently, what purpose would it serve Broughton to save Spyglass, if Spyglass’ memorised list can identify her as Satchel?


The other slight point of contention with Atomic Blonde is the soundtrack. Tyler Bates’ general cues are appropriately atmospheric, but as much as the period sounds are invigorating to the action, they are also cumulatively a little too liberal in their foregrounding, at the expense of immersion in the movie itself. The result, on occasion, is the sense that Leitch is in danger of waving through a succession of vignette promos rather than parts amounting to a whole (I like the creative, graffiti-esque onscreen captions, though, utilising a similar flair to the subtitles seen in John Wick).


Generally, though, I was more than satisfied with the two-edged titled Atomic Blonde. It evidences that both Wickers, Leitch and Chad Stahelski, are very much equally inspired visualists now they have gone on to complete solo vehicles. It cements Charlize as an action icon up there with the best (and as for other female contenders, I liked Salt, and several other of Jolie’s forays into that territory, but Theron easily surpasses her). I’m not sure Atomic Blonde will make enough to guarantee a sequel, but it wasn’t expensive, and John Wick garnered one. It might be interesting to see what Broughton gets up to in the ‘90s. In the meantime, Leitch has gone on to Deadpool 2. I can only hope he mustered a sizeable pay cheque, as that may be the only reward he gets from the experience.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.