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 nourish, 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

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).