Review:  Atomic Blonde (USA 2017)

A hard-R gender-flipped Bond film pretending it’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Atomic Blonde is one of the clearest cut cases of style over substance I’ve seen in a while.  The film – a mess of double agent gobbledygook set in divided Berlin during the fall of the Wall – is nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is.  Frankly, Atomic Blonde is not a film that rewards thought – on the contrary, the more thought you give it the worse it comes off.  But those momentary pleasures … Charlize Theron’s outfits, the ‘80s grunge and glam set design, and, most especially, the fights … ah, unglaublich!

Theron here continues her modern-day re-invention as an action hero that began with her starring role in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Make no mistake, Theron is 100% James Bond here.  The modern Bond, the hard-edged, hard-hitting Daniel Craig Bond.  No witty quips, just throat punches and chunks of metal to the head.  And she more than carries it off.

None of that super hero laser-beam or Bourne-style shaky cam garbage here.  Stunt coordinator turned director David Leitch (John Wick) knows his stuff, and Theron put in the time and the effort, and it damn well shows.  The best showcases are two extended scenes where Theron finds herself trapped in close-quarter brawls in apartment buildings, ducking in and out of elevators and stairwells and using every item available to gain an advantage.  Leitch shoots these close to the action, but always makes sure that the geography is clear.  The editing too serves the action well – you can tell from the judicious and restrained cutting that these people know what they are doing, and that flashy editing isn’t needed to mask a lack of ability.

I wish the rest of the film worked as well.  As I noted, the plot is a bit of a boring mess, and the film dabbles in incredibly dicey gender politics, particularly in the poorly conceived and executed lesbian love subplot between Theron and a French Agent (played by Sofia Boutella of Kingsman, used and misused both by the characters and the plot).  The framing device is almost completely useless, despite the presence of ringers like John Goodman and Toby Jones.

And while the film exploits its ‘80s aesthetic to the hilt, the soundtrack never reaches for the deep cuts (like FX’s superior spy drama The Americans); rather, it plays the most obvious ‘80s tracks you could think of (and yes, that does include 99 Red Luftballons and Der Kommisar).  And not to get too film nerdy, but I had problems with the film’s use of diegetic sound. For example, in the opening sequence, a spy’s desperate attempt to escape Berlin is scored with New Order’s Blue Monday. We eventually see that this score is playing in the car of his pursuer, as the music is cut off by a closed door, but after a dramatic moment, the music kicks back in again. Is the music playing in the car? Is it not? It’s sloppy work, and distracted me from an otherwise intense scene. This problem repeats itself later in the film.

As with fellow female-led spy actioner from South Korea, The Villainess, when the razzle-dazzle wears off, or any time asses aren’t getting kicked, Atomic Blonde fails to make a lasting impression, but still … I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching Theron throw down.

2 out of 4 stars (Average).  Atomic Blonde is in theaters now.

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