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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

They make themselves now.

Screamers (1995)
(SPOILERS) Adapting Philip K Dick isn’t as easy as it may seem, but that doesn't stop eager screenwriters from attempting to hit that elusive jackpot. The recent Electric Dreams managed to exorcise most of the existential gymnastics and doubts that shine through in the best versions of his work, leaving material that felt sadly facile. Dan O'Bannon had adapted Second Variety more than a decade before it appeared as Screamers, a period during which he and Ronald Shusett also turned We Can Remember It For You Wholesale into Total Recall. So the problem with Screamers isn't really the (rewritten) screenplay, which is more faithful than most to its source material (setting aside). The problem with Screamers is largely that it's cheap as chips.

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

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

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …