The name's Blonde...Atomic Blonde. Now who killed my dog?
Atomic Blonde is directed by David Leitch and stars Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, and Toby Jones. It is based on the 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City.
There are two possible paths that one could take when trying to give an accurate assessment of David Leitch's Atomic Blonde, one path for if someone chooses to make as many James Bond comparisons as possible and the other path for if one decides to see how many similarities that Atomic Blonde has to the John Wick films. But then I'll tel you that there's option number three, which would be to turn around and conclude that Atomic Blonde is the mixed product of James Bond and John Wick. In other words, Atomic Blonde would be the kind of movie you get if James Bond happened to find himself within a John Wick movie or if John Wick went on a James Bond-style mission.
Atomic Blonde leans more towards James Bond than John Wick, because it's a spy movie at its core, in which our spy heroine is sent out on a mission that, if not successfully completed, would throw global security into utter chaos. But it's a spy movie that cares the most for its style, and style is something one ought to be required to mention if they were ever doing a review of Atomic Blonde.
The story takes place in 1989 Berlin, right when the Berlin Wall was to be torn down. MI6 agent James Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin (Johannes Johanneson), who steals a wristwatch concealing the List, a document that contains the names and information of every intelligence agent active in Berlin. The film the cuts to ten days later, where top MI6 spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed by MI6 executive Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfield (John Goodman). Lorraine speaks to the two about her mission in Berlin.
We then cut to a flashback right after Gascoigne's death, when Lorraine is sent to Berlin to recover the List and look out for Satchel, a KGB double agent. Lorraine meets up with rogue MI6 operative David Percival (James McAvoy), and the two work together to try and track down any leads that may lead them to the List. Along the way, Lorraine starts up a romantic relationship with French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella).
According to IMDb, Charlize Theron had spent up to five years getting the project developed, with the success of Mad Max: Fury Road serving as a guide. Theron was also inspired by the first John Wick movie to get director David Leitch involved in the production, and Leitch decided to leave the production of John Wick: Chapter 2 in order to work on Atomic Blonde. The John Wick related trivia notes don't stop there: Theron's training for the film overlapped with that of Keanu Reeves' for John Wick: Chapter 2, so the two decided to train together. Part of me can't help but feel bothered by all of these connections to the John Wick films, because why would Theron and director David Leitch want audiences to watch Atomic Blonde when they can't help but think of John Wick half the time? Why would you want to watch any movie when you can't help but think to yourself, "this is a lot like [insert famous movie being compared to here]?" I won't dismiss Atomic Blonde as bad just because it doesn't win any points for true originality, but my goodness, you have to do something to try and distinguish yourself even a little bit from other, already established action/spy stars.
- I will wholeheartedly credit Atomic Blonde with this: it has style, best emphasized by the film's flashy costumes, bright neon lighting, and sleek production design. The film's portrayal of Berlin is one with a sort of technopunk attitude, in which the city streets are running wild with sex, music, and carefree dancing. Buildings and walls are covered with graffiti, yet everything still has a tint of shine to deter you from thinking you've accidentally stumbled upon a post apocalyptic site. Charlize Theron's costumes are always in line with what her character is: professional and hard-hitting, but always slightly suggestive. Theron herself is a perfect fit for the kind of two-pronged nature that is inherent to her character, like it was a role she was born to play.
- The action scenes work the way they need to, particularly a lengthy stairway fight that looks as if it was done with one long, unbroken take. Theron takes it lightly with the gun play, relying more on physical combat to defeat the men that get in her way. I am trying to avoid going on a spiel about John Wick action comparisons, but if you're going to make your action similar to that from any other recent action film, then John Wick is a fine choice. If you loved and adored the action in John Wick, then Atomic Blonde is another round of that same style of action. The fight scene on the stairs is arguably the best reason to see the film, and although it looks like it was all in one take, it was actually about forty separate shots seamlessly put together.
- It's unfortunate that Atomic Blonde is a narrative jumble, its story being far more complicated than it needs to be. The story is like something straight out of an older James Bond film, but the movie goes about it with a hard-to-follow approach that completely sucks out all of the payoff to be had with the twists and turns that occur throughout. The nonlinear, flashback style of the movie doesn't have any kind of effect on how the story is told. It's that the movie does a rather clumsy job of piecing all of its characters together and communicating their intentions to us. I am not one to say, "Who cares if the story doesn't make much sense? Just look at all that style!" because it is entirely possible for an action movie, even a spy-based action movie, to have a good, easy-enough-to-follow story while also maintaining a stylish edge. Sadly, Atomic Blonde puts nearly all of its eggs into the style basket. A style lover's dream come true, but a bad taste in the mouth of story lovers.
I dodged seeing Atomic Blonde in theaters while it was out in the summer of 2017, and now having finally seen it recently, I'm glad I did. As stylish as the movie is, the narrative setbacks kept me from feeling like I had a good time, despite the movie also having some neat action sequences. Me being a sucker for story forces me to be biased towards having a healthy enough narrative, and for that, I can't highly recommend Atomic Blonde to anyone. Plus, the James Bond and John Wick comparisons are so palpable that you'd have to be struck blind, deaf, and dumb to miss them. People who prefer style over substance ought to get a big kick out of Charlize Theron's attempt at being a female James Bond or female John Wick. For the rest of us, I'd say we just tell Charlize Theron and David Leitch better luck next time.
Recommend? No, but I think you'd enjoy yourself if you like to watch action movies more for style and not so much the story.
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