Directed by David Leitch
Serious genre spy films (and television for that matter), when done right…really right…are incredibly rare. And, at its core, “Atomic Blonde” is just that. In spite of its graphic novel origins, over-the-top fight scenes, and blaring & perfectly-matched (if historically incorrect) soundtrack, “Atomic Blonde” only works because it takes its subject matter seriously. There are stakes here…yes, Cold War stakes, but, more importantly, individual and PERSONAL stakes – for every character. And, because of that directive by director David Leitch, the film is really quite enjoyable.
I have now seen five films and/or shows based in Berlin in the last year or so (most of which were shot on the Pest side of Budapest), and what I’m left with is that the film community thinks Berlin is the bleakest city on earth. Except when in a dance club (where the color palette of pinks and reds match that outlandish Jägermeister commercial), every shot has a blue sheen, as if under a giant sky of brightly lit seventies-era fluorescent bulbs. This version of Berlin (brought to life here by cinematographer, Jonathan Sela, and production designer, David Scheunemann) has now been used so often in pop culture, I’m sure people who visit the German capital must be disappointed that the sun is the same shade of yellow they’re used to at home. And, having been to Budapest in 2006, I assure you, that city is, likewise, quite vibrant and colorful, if still more reminiscent of its Soviet days than most any other European city. All of which is to say, the world of the film is engrossing and seductive in a way that bring out the best in a spy caper.
But the film really separates itself via some terrific editing, a good spy story and believable performances. Director Leitch and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (“John Wick”, “Deadpool 2”), have learned well from the “Raid” series. Unlike DC films, the camera and edits gives us enough room to see, not just where the hit is coming from, or who it lands on, but the thought process before a strike, and the consequence of receiving one. And, of course, there’s a hypnotic ten-minute, single shot fight scene that makes us feel even more connected (even if it does feel a little too much like the stairwell fight scene in the second season of Netflix’ “Daredevil”). While the plot sometimes tries a little too hard to throw misdirection at you, and a tiny bit of the action feels as if it’s trying to hard to make you laugh, the story is just intriguing enough to look past the blemishes
Charlize Theron has no problem inhabiting the role of protagonist. Sexy, smart, and mysterious, she’s a true Bond-like badass – played by a woman! Hollywood, I hardly recognize you!! It’s easy to forget how good James McAvoy can be, but “Atomic Blonde” is a perfect reminder. What’s real and what’s not are perfectly played/hidden in everything he does. The minor characters, Rupert Jones, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Sofia Boutella, paint in the rest of this world with an honesty you’d expect from such fine actors.
And let’s all rejoice that Hollywood has seen fit to give Danish actor, Roland Møller (who was 75% of what made “Land of Mine” the best film of 2016) a plum role!
Then there’s the soundtrack. This is the third film THIS SUMMER that relies so heavily on wall to wall pop music to create a sense of time and/or mood (“Guardians 2” & “Baby Driver” being the others). Leaning heavily on 80’s New Wave – specifically the colder, distant sounds of Nena, After the Fire, Peter Schilling, pop-era Bowie, Re-Flex and Siouxsie & the Banshees, along with covers of songs by Ministry and New Order – the music evokes the dark and robotic feel of Glasnost Berlin. And composer Tyler Bates’ additions feel like direct outtakes from that era – a masterful bit of appropriation. My only teeny-tiny bit of criticism is that most of these songs had their heyday in the early ’80’s, not the 1989-90 that the movie evokes. But, hey, you use “The Politics of Dancing” in a club scene – a song I danced to at Chicago’s long-shuttered Medusa’s back in 1983 – and I’m in.
Listen, “Atomic Blonde” is not a great film, but it’s a terrific addition to the genre. It’s a joy to see ANOTHER Hollywood film where a woman is the central focus of power and intellect, wrapped in an old school action flick usually reserved for the boys club. Less importantly, but more germane to our discussion, it’s a really fun way to spend a couple hours in the air-conditioned darkness of your local movie house.
Written on 8/10/2017