By Jack Dignan
Nobody walked into 2014’s John Wick expecting a brilliant film, let alone one that would go on to pave the way for modern action films. Yet both of those things came into fruition. It wasn’t just another action film. It was a hyper stylized, bloodthirsty marathon of absolute carnage that proved a worthy adversary to modern day shaky cam bullshit. And it’s starting to become the latest trend. Moviegoers have hailed Atomic Blonde, which is in fact directed by one of the first film’s co-director’s, as the female John Wick. While the film is of significantly lower quality, it does remain an admirable comparison.
Quite frankly, I have no idea what happened in this movie. No, this isn’t some complex multi-narrative experience like Dunkirk. Atomic Blonde just makes no goddamn sense. At its core, it’s a neon-lit Charlize Theron killing dudes in various degrees of brutality, but there is, apparently, a plot that went with that as well. We find ourselves in the final days of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall is about to tumble, but this isn’t that story. It’s a tale of espionage, former lovers and a list of operatives who, if in the wrong hands, could not only bring down MI6, but also potentially start World War 3. Stakes are high, or at least we’re told they are. It’s never actually felt. But still, Charlize Theron is here is kick a bunch of ass and have a lot of sex. What more could you want from cinema?
The film walks a very fine line between grounded and silly. It’s Theron’s violent interpretation of Loraine Broughton who anchors this film down through her sympathetic and intoxicating backstory. You don’t necessarily know a lot about her, but you don’t need to. There’s a constant understanding with her character. She’s here for the mission, but there’s so much more to it than that. Atomic Blonde is a tale of vengeance, cross-country conflict, spies doing spy things and James McAvoy grunting his way through most of his lines. The plot at hand makes very little sense, and to a certain degree as do the characters, but you have to roll with the moment, and if you do, there’s fun to be had.
Director David Leitch knows how to shoot an action sequence. His career started out as a stunt coordinator, only recently moving into directing with John Wick and only just now directing by himself. But his former career shows. The stunt work is comparable to cinema’s finest. You feel every blow, you react to every shot, and when an extended one-shot hallway fight goes down, you can’t look away. It’s an unforgivingly violent encapsulation of everything that makes this film so fun. A lot of the shot sees Theron just running up and down stairs, but when the enemies come, they instantaneously wish they hadn’t. The shot boasts so many of the film’s high points, whether it’s the stunt work, cinematography or Theron’s dedicated performance.
In fact, the filmmaking is so good that Atomic Blonde does feel a little like style over substance. I was watching in utter awe of how this film got made, but there’s very little bite to it. Every tiny detail, ranging from the lighting to the editing to the overall set design is absolutely impeccable, but it all amounts to nothing because the film never really goes anywhere. Plot lines are thin are overbearing. Character arcs come out of nowhere. The very final scene feels like is should matter, but really doesn’t. Nothing in this world makes much sense, but it does, much like with John Wick, feel like a lived in environment. These orginisations have been going about their business in secrecy for years, and I bought into it with ease.
The film even boasts an epic 80s soundtrack that bounces us from scene to scene. But no matter how impressive the soundtrack may be, even with plenty of generic “look at me” songs, the recent success of Baby Driver has spoilt me. After seeing the way that movie matches music with its action, nothing else can even compare. Everyone that tries, even films made simultaneously (both this and Baby Driver first premiered at SXSW earlier in the year), just can’t live up to Baby Driver’s hype. But, alas, everyone involved looks to be having so much fun, and it shows in their performances. McAvoy is clearly having a hoot doing whatever the hell it was his character was doing (I still don’t understand him…), whereas Theron is slowly turning into a modern day action star and I love it.
I had high expectations walking into Atomic Blonde, so no matter how much neon-lit carnage it managed to throw in my face (the first half did feel a little lacking in this regard), it still left me slightly disappointed. It’s fine. This isn’t the worst film imaginable, and there are far worse options currently playing in cinemas *cough* Transformers *cough*, but the actual film struggles to live up to the craftsmanship that’s been put into it. Still, the film ends with a David Bowie song, so it’s impossible for me to say I didn’t like it.
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