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.

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

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

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas