Atomic Blonde Doesn't Stack Up To Its Name
Review by Aaron Haughton
David Leitch's Atomic Blonde has some great style, stunning cinematography and technical gusto, but it’s drawn out to the point of yawn and is so dull story-wise that its visual chic, lean direction, technical shootouts/fights, and killer soundtrack can’t save it. In the end, it lands a mediocre blow, with the exception of a scene or two that will really drop your jaw, and I'm not talking about the girl-on-girl scene. In short, it's not nearly as explosive as its name suggests.
The film takes place in Berlin on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin wall. Charlize Theron plays an MI6 spy that gets deployed to take down an espionage ring on the verge of leaking the identities of all the MI6 agents. There, she strikes an uneasy alliance with Berlin station chief David Percival (played by James McAvoy). Together, they work to pursue the threat that stands to jeopardize the West's entire intelligence operation.
There's a lot to like about this spy flick adapted from the graphic novel The Coldest City. The cinematography is drenched in neon, sleek as hell, and really nails the graphic novel feel. Leitch's direction is focused and smooth, and in several instances showcases his technical capabilities, which will be very familiar to fans of Leitch's John Wick franchise. The performers do what they can to flesh out their one-dimensional characters, but only manage to be interesting when engaged in a round of fisticuffs. It's difficult to ascertain if it's a script issue or a source material issue (because I've not read the graphic novel), but either way, the story is the weakest attribute here, and drones on for far too long, never once reaching a compelling plain.
The very premise is uninteresting and something so commonplace in a spy film that it doesn't even merit much discussion. The narrative twists and turns it tries to make are spotted in plain sight, and are only not obvious to our main character, WHO'S A SPY. Luckily, the ultra stylized look and feel, and the occasional fight scene here and there is enough to hold attention. Until it's not.
There comes a point in the film where the film gets so exhausted in its own attempts to be uber stylized that it begins to slouch, giving way to some lazy time lapses and slapdash editing. Just when you think it's run out of stylish charm; however, it does something to snap your focus.
At one juncture, it comes in the form of a fairly unnecessary girl-on-girl scene, which is a feeble attempt to advance the story and keep the men engaged. Spoiler alert: it doesn't really work. The true attention grabber comes in the form of a flawlessly executed 10-minute, long-take fight sequence with technical cuts. It winds down several flights of stairs and into rooms as characters brutalize each other, even taking it outside and into a car, where it continues with a car chase shootout. The whole sequence has a feel of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men with regard its ambitious and technical bravado, but comes a little too late in the game.
Unfortunately, for an action film, Atomic Blonde has more scenes of talking and boring cat-and-mouse play than it does action. There are two fights that standout amongst the lot and are placed in the first and third act, causing the second to really drag, which is why I'm guessing they placed a girl-on-girl scene there.
I was pleased to see that Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker made an appearance in a Berlin cinema. It's a cheeky reference, given that Theron is getting STALKED by some CGB, but it's a little too forced. Why would a Berlin cinema be screening this particular Tarkovsky film a decade after its release? I'm probably overanalyzing a movie that was intended for you to turn your brain off and stuff popcorn into mouth, but it does speak to the film's need to constantly assault you with style to compensate for the lack of characterization or story.
At the end of the day, it's a film that knows what it is and wants to be. Though technically immaculate, its style isn't enough to craft anything more than a mediocre offering. Perhaps is the same level of care was placed into the narrative craft as it was the visuals, it'd really be something of a spectacle. It bursts out the gate with a lot of energy and steam, but by the end it's just as tired as our female protagonist. It's worth a watch for its it's gorgeous lightning, taut direction and graceful technical enthusiasm, but you're not missing out on anything if you take a pass.
Rating: 3 ice baths outta 5.
What do you think? Was Atomic Blonde better than John Wick? Did the film feel too long? Was there too much style and not enough story? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!