FILM REVIEW: Atomic Blonde

Badass is not a word I use lightly. In fact, it’s not a word I use at all, save for when it fits. With Atomic Blonde, badass fits. It’s a word that’s been attached to the film since its trailer dropped earlier in the year, where a Debbie Harry lookalike and MI6 agent, played by Charlize Theron, performs a series of spine snapping, and quite frankly, awe inspiring stunts, to a killer soundtrack, featuring New Order, Queen and Depeche Mode no less. Visually stunning, the trailer is basically the movie. A spy thriller, set in 1989, a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall,  there really isn’t anywhere else to go beyond this. Watch those two minutes, you know exactly what you’re getting, plot and all (for the most part). Yet, as with most spy, come action thrillers, it’s style over substance that makes them so addictive. You only have to look to Bond to see that’s it’s truly the essence of ‘cool’ that sells the film. Here, ‘cool’ is turned all the way to eleven.

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An adaptation from The Coldest City, a graphic novel by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart, and directed by David Leitch, the movie is shot in similar style. Suffering from what appears to be a lack of narrative, most likely thanks to its source material, the film is cut with rapid shots, from East to West Berlin, that de-stabilize the plot in adept fashion. What we know is that someone out there is a double agent, under the name of Satchel. There’s a list in a watch with a bunch of secrets, revealing all about a wide string of agents, and that Berlin seems to be a place where all agents, good and bad, seem to wind up dead, or close enough. As such, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is sent to make contact with David Percival (James McAvoy), and investigate the very recent death of a fellow agent, assassinating Satchel in the process. Of course, none of this goes to plan, and a who’s who, and who’s that, of agents from MI6, to the KGB and to the CIA, complicate the mission further.

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Yet, the plot, which on a second watch makes far more sense I must admit, isn’t what sells the movie. Rather, it’s the fire soundtrack, the 80s-laden cinematography (wall to wall neon), and the terrific combat scenes, that make Atomic Blonde so watchable. It’s a visual and sensory overload, so much so that in the extended one take stairwell fight scene, you feel every single blow given, and taken, by Broughton.

Her character too, isn’t overtly sexualised, or discriminated against, because of her gender, and whilst it may seem somewhat trivial to mention such a point, in a genre that pigeonholes women into varying Hollywood categories, here, there is, refreshingly, minimal focus on the fact that she is a woman. The film gives little time to that fact that she could be weaker than the men she fights too, because quite frankly, who cares? Theron plays it with such force, much like she did in Mad Max: Fury Road, that you never doubt her for a second. Do I believe she can stab a man with a stiletto in once scene, and take out five guys in another? Yes, absolutely.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

Who, or what is going on, outside of these scenes, seems by the by. The plot is less than engaging when compared to the striking visuals given on screen. Theron’s character is cold, to the point of icy, which is exactly the point. And in the few scenes where we see some semblance of emotion, they revolve around the fling she has with fellow agent Delphine Lasalle, played by Star Trek star Sofia Boutella, who gives the film a sense of naïve buoyancy, which is otherwise drowned by people being shot left right and centre, in a series of thrilling ways.

All in all, Atomic Blonde is, as often most stylish movies are, aesthetically pleasing. It looks great, sounds even better, and the characters are interesting enough to keep you engaged. If it had the plot to match, it would be one of the best action movies of the past decade or so. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, so it’s not. Nevertheless, it’s supremely watchable (I’ve now seen it three times, although that may say more about me than it does about the film), and whilst there are some disappointments regarding certain characters (no spoilers here), it’s magnetic enough to make up for its sometimes overbearing vacancy.

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Production Credits:
87Eleven
Closed on Mondays Entertainment
Denver and Delilah Productions
Film i Väst (in association with: Scandinavia)
G.I.M Films

Distribution Credits:
Universal Pictures (UK)

Review by Emily Harrison

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