Monday, July 31, 2017

Film Review: Atomic Blonde

Sexuality/Nudity Objectionable 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Objectionable

Atomic Blonde is a movie that should be all kinds of awesome.

-director from John Wick: check.
-charismatic action lead: check.
-nifty 80's soundtrack: check.
-high-octane action throughout: check.

But when all is said and done, the whole movie feels like a waste.

Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a member of the British Secret Service who is being sent to East Berlin right before the fall of the wall.  A Stasi informant known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) has a list of undercover agents that could put many lives at risk.  Her main contact is fellow Secret Service agent David Percival (James McAvoy) who has gone deep into the Berlin black market.  Along the way she encounters French spy Delpine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) with whom she begins a love affair.  Lorraine races against the clock to find the information as she dangerously jumps across both sides of the wall several times to secure the information and find a traitorous mole code-named "Satchel."

All of that is well and good and should be fantastic fodder for the movie.  But there are several problems right off the bat.

I am not a fan of gratuitous nudity and there is plenty in the film from the beginning.  Theron first appears on screen emerging from an ice bath and then walks around nude.  I have no problem with a film capturing the physical beauty of a person.  Daniel Craig has that famous shot of him coming out of the water in Casino Royale.  But when you cross over into nudity, it goes from appreciation of physical beauty to objectification.  And there is a good deal of R-Rated female-female sex depicted which acts as a complete distraction.  I think the point was to make Broughton as sexually adventurous as 007, but nothing in Bond has ever been this graphic.

Also, the very first moment you meet McAvoy's Percival, he utters a completely vulgar and baffling blasphemy of the Virgin Mary.  I found myself lingering on that moment long after it had passed and it kept me from engaging in parts of the movie.  In fact, his entire character is a problem for the entire film.  I'm not sure if my distaste for McAvoy is coloring my dislike of his performance, so I want to be fair.  He has a great deal of energy, but he comes off as so off-putting that I could never engage with him.

Narratively, the movie is strangely ineffective.  I enjoy complicated and complex plots, but I couldn't follow a good deal of what was happening or rather why it was happening.  A number of the villains make such a feeble impression that I had trouble remembering who they were.  Also the movie does a lot to remove a lot of the important tension.  Most of the movie is told by Broughton in flashback so we have no fear that she will survive her several deadly encounters.  The movie builds towards the fall of the Berlin Wall as some kind of ticking clock, but all it does is make us feel that this conflict is ultimately pointless.  Also the story reveals WAY too early that someone is a traitor.  Because of that we don't get to really revel in the paranoia of potential betrayal.  And when the betrayal does happen it comes with so little shock that you come to realize that you had been watching this movie impatiently waiting to reveal something to you that you already knew.  This makes the overall affair boring and tedious.

On a side note, Boutella's Delphine may be the stupidest spy ever on film.  When she realizes that her life is in mortal danger does she flee Berlin?  No.  She CALLS UP the person who is her biggest threat and yells at him for NO REASON.  After that, does she run away?  Set a trap?  No.  She puts on a pair of noise cancelling head phones and wanders around her unsecure apartment in her underwear.  The sequence is so pointless that it defied comprehension.

Theron is actually fairly good in her role.  While her character's cold exterior never thaws enough for us to see the character underneath, her performance is on par with Craig's first Bond film.

The action sequences are also excellent.  There is a much-talked-about sequence in an abandoned building that seems like one continuous take.  It is brutal and raw and the absolute best part of the movie.  It is a scene that deserves to be in a better movie.  Director David Leitch knows how to make these parts of the movie watchable.  But because we lack a strong connection to the story I actually wish they were shorter.  And he throws in some funky camera moves that seem to serve no other purpose than to be funky.

The film also makes decent use of the music and styles of the era, but never to their full effect.  Although the film wisely uses Queen's and Bowie's "Under Pressure" in the final sequence which hits the end with just the right sense of cool and awesome.

On a last note, the movie has a terrible title.  There is nothing "atomic" related to the story and the focus on her being "blonde" also has nothing to do with the story.  I know that its supposed to be a clever play on the phrase "atomic bomb" but it really isn't clever.  In a movie that tries to insist on the strength and independence of its main heroine, the title is strangely objectifying.  I couldn't imagine that one of the potential titles for John Wick was Nuclear Brunette.

But a bad title is the least of the problems found in Atomic Blonde.  With a movie like this, you should leave the theater feeling exhilarated, not bored.

1 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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