The time for shaky-cam action films (The Bourne Saga) that have ten cuts per punch (The Taken Trilogy) are over. Films like Kingsman: The Secret Service and John Wick verify that action films don’t all have to follow the same template and use similar visuals. While John Wick is glossy and sleek, Atomic Blonde is gritty and alternative. The film’s soundtrack is nostalgic (even if it may be a bit on the nose) and its amusing way of presenting a Cold War-torn Berlin feels fresh. A convoluted plot isn’t enough to bring down a film that consists of fun performances, an inviting tone, passionate cinematography, and a scene that will undoubtedly drop the jaws of even the its harshest critic.
Atomic Blonde‘s IMDb longline; “An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.” Charlize Theron stars alongside James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella. Dangerous isn’t strong enough to describe Theron’s character; she’s not James Bond or John Wick, she isn’t superhuman nor invincible. She gets hit, hard, but has the determination and strength to get back up. When punches aren’t being thrown, her performance feels flat, which was probably how the director wanted her to perform it. The film isn’t about the personality of her character, but those around her and the things she does. People give McAvoy praise for being a good performer, but never the credit deserved for his level of acting. Atonement, X-Men: First Class, Filth, Split, and now Atomic Blonde; he is an incredible actor with incredible range that should be talked about as being up there with Fassbender and DiCaprio. In Atomic Blonde, McAvoy has fun with the role and offers an entertaining and memorable role. After her refreshing performance in the dreadful film, The Mummy, Boutella proves that she is always a revelation when on the screen. She’s perfectly credible, soft-spoken, and erotic enough to give the role exactly what it needed.
I like to think I’m somewhat educated when it comes to Cold War politics but I, and most people I’ve talked to, have had a difficult time following the narrative of the film. Double agents, emissaries from five different countries, a list of undercover spies, and a late eighties Berlin backdrop that is dire to the plot are just a few of the main story ticks. Unfortunately, much of the film and its dialogue hinges on understanding the narrative, and as hypocritical it is for ME to say this because of my advocacy for a strong narrative, none of it matters because the film is much more than its story.
The feel of Berlin in 1989 feels extremely authentic; the East feels as dirty and murky as it should. The cinematography is reminiscent of something we haven’t seen in a long while; a nude Theron sitting on the side of an ice bath while pouring herself a glass of Stoli, Boutella and Theron making love in a red-dimmed room, McAvoy drinking Jack Daniels and smoking a cigarette at a grimy underground rave. Former stunt coordinator turned director, David Leitch, whose only filmmaking credit is as an uncredited director on John Wick, proves his natural talent (something we will see when he directs Deadpool 2). The main job of a director is to transform their vision onto the screen; something Leitch achieved wholly.
The action in the film is few and far between; there’s only four sequences and three of them are maybe a minute or two each, and then there’s the fourth one. Doing my best not to spoil the scene, there is a one shot in the film (there are a few obvious cheats, much like Birdman) that is, with no hyperbole, the best one shot I have ever seen. It’s over ten minutes, multiple deaths, and there is never a doubt that It’s not Theron performing all her own stunts. There is weight to their fights during the scene; the characters struggle to stand after a marathon bout. The complexity, balls, and realism allows it to make a strong case for being one of the single most impressive scenes in film history. The “/Filmcast” podcast is on record as saying, “this is one of those scenes people will be talking about for years to come.”
“A convoluted plot isn’t enough to bring down a film that consists of fun performances, an inviting tone, passionate cinematography, and a scene that will undoubtedly drop the jaws of even the its harshest critic.”
Atomic Blonde is a fun ride that’s sexy, grimy, bloody, and rousing. When not trying to figure out which spy is which and which country they work for, I was having a surprisingly pleasurable time. I strongly recommend you see the film in a theatre so that it’s technical achievements can be fully appreciated. With a $30 million budget and already at $25 million in revenue, it’s safe to say that the film is a financial success, positive reviews prove it to be a critical hit, and my personal fascination with it will stick with me for a while.
Cinema 35 Rating: 8/10