“Atomic Blonde” (2017)
Running Time: 115 minutes
Written by: Kurt Johnstad
Directed by: David Leitch
Featuring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones
Gray: “Lorraine Broughton, an expert in escape and evasion. Proficient in intelligence collection and hand to hand combat. That’s an impressive set of skills.”
Lorraine Broughton: “Talents can be overrated.”
Reducing this weeks new action film to just a “John Wick” (2015) clone with a gender switch would be dismissing this film unfairly. Of course there is the link in that David Leitch, director of “Atomic Blonde” (2017) was the co-director of Wick. The origins of each movie are different, “John Wick” was an original concept with a world and mythology built around the central character brought ably to life by star Keanu Reeves. However “Atomic Blonde” is based on an existing property, the 2012 graphic novel ‘The Coldest City’, which is less about the world building than it is about a plot. Unfortunately that might be where these two movies are so different, whereas Wick was concerned with continuously moving forward using action as a narrative, Blonde tries extremely hard to bring a cohesive plot to bear; that is its biggest mistake – it lets the movie down to a point that this does feel like a bit of a pale imitator.
The narrative is told in flashback that feels tacked on to give more exposition as well as to explain to the audience what is going on at any given time, even though this plot should not be hard to follow – which it is, as well as being extremely toped filled which makes this also feel dull. No amount of steamy looks, a fairly unexciting been there done that soundtrack does little to invigorate what should have been a home run of film.
After “john Wick” I can see the appeal to striking out on your own, David Leitch has not only directed this but is currently shooting the sequel to “Deadpool” (2015), I see that as more in his wheelhouse, although he is an unproven director of humor, which is partly what made “Deadpool” such a huge success. What Leitch does bring is the ability to direct action as well as highly choreographed fight scenes, with the vessel being a highly charged and motivated Charlize Theron. This is another missed opportunity with the action being too spread out over the almost two hour running time – at least half an hour too long in my mind – i found myself clock watching at one point, hoping I could take a nap.
The film is set in 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, MI6 agent James Gasciogne is shot and killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin, who steals ‘The List’, ( a tired plot point from almost any spy film) a piece of microfilm concealed in a wristwatch that contains the names of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. The day after Gasciogne’s death, Lorraine is dispatched to Berlin to recover the List and assassinate Satchel, a double agent who has sold intelligence to the Soviets for years and who betrayed Gasciogne.
As with many modern high concept movies, “Atomic Blonde” has casted superbly, and really who would not want to make a movie with Theron after her incredible performance in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) where she combined a great performance that dove tailed with plot as well as huge action set pieces. Not only that after what “John Wick” did for Keanu Reeves profile David Leitch would have to be a draw for other possible cast members as well – including Theron herself. The biggest difference being that it was Reeves name above the title in his film, but Theron has to share this billing with James McAvoy – this seems a bit disparate as the title of the movie refers directly to Theron’s character as well as look, not only that the entire marketing campaign is built around her image, seems a little unfair, no?
So we have some of the greatest character actors that are working today, with the likes of John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones all lending their talents and elevating the material well above its surface quality. However it is James McAvoy who like most films he appears, in whether as a supporting or lead actor, is able to throw himself into his role. Much like the excellent “Split” (2017) from earlier this year he is playing against type by really acting as a main support to a female lead. One of the keys to McAvoy’s performances in almost all of his roles is that he seems not to mind the size of the part, but instead recognizes that he can contribute in some unique way with his own talents – he is actually a wonderful actor to watch, much like his X-Men co-star Michael Fassbender. In this instance I would not say McAvoy steals this movie by any stretch, in fact if anything his performance is uneven – it would not surprise me if his storyline changed during shooting as well as in the edit.
As mentioned, as if you did not realize, Theron is a superstar, after receiving her Oscar she propelled her career into high gear avoiding the curse that often befalls people who win the major award. She has gone from strength to strength with her chosen roles, leading her own action movie seemed to be the next tick in the box. It is too bad that she as well as her cast are the best thing about this mess of a film, it bounces around like a dropped Ping-Pong ball, struggling to find a home. Theron has covered almost every genre in her oeuvre, except maybe a musical, but that is a set of skills not everyone has. After the success of her Imperator Furiosa I can see the appeal of playing action in another period film, while maintaining the lead of the movie, but it is the talent behind the camera that lets her down here. I do think there will be enough of an audience to make this film some kind of success, the question is will more be made, or will it be one and done?
The real failure of this movie has to be down to screenwriter Kurt Johnstad whose career has been choppy to say the least, on the surface of it he is better with films that require little plot as well as narrative competence. The films Johnstad has ‘written’ are the plot less messes of “300” (2006), “Act of Valor” (2012) and “300: Rise of an Empire” (2014) which all have issues concerning theme, plot as well as being heavy on action, that has been interpreted by heavy handed directors. You can hide many issues if you are willing to spend the money as well as paste action over almost every scene. It is unfortunate then, that “Atomic Blonde” has such a modest budget, otherwise the same thing may have happened here. It is no easy thing to create a film that is so unfairly compared to “John Wick” (its unfair on Wick as it is the far superior film) but that movie had a concerted effort to streamline both plot as well as introduce a new type of action, much like Reeves was a part of with his ‘Matrix Trilogy’.
This is a period piece as it is set in the Cold War of 1980s Germany, there is an inherit tension between East and West – recently personified in the excellent “Bridge of Spies” (2015) – here we have the opportunity to create a truly signature look for the film, while cinematographer Jonathan Sela attempts to bring a ‘cool’ look, his inexperience shows through, he is a shooter of many music videos, but his only success has only been, yes you guessed it, “John Wick” – there seems to be a common thread here. There is little difference in the look of the movie from “John Wick”, it seems that this movie owes a greater debt to that movie than first thought. I did think that the experience from the success of “John Wick” might be a stepping-stone to a new movie with the added twist of a new setting both in geography and time, as well as that excellent cast – that is not the case, this is a poor cousin indeed. In fact director Leitch seems more interested in trying to impress with camera tricks, as well as some tired gunplay, as well introducing twists you can see a mile away.
The bottom line with this movie is should it be seen in cinemas or be watched at home later in the year. Whilst I would not recommend this movie as a must watch, it is entertaining even with the convoluted plot. The cast is excellent so if you enjoy watching any of them onscreen you will be entertained. The setting of the movie in the 1980s as well as in Germany is inspired as it immediately lends itself to a certain tone as well as (attempted) political intrigue. As well as all of this it is being released in a season where fatigue of superhero films as well as reboots and sequels could drive you to seek something new out, after all this is a relatively new property which is actually a big plus. However if I was to actually recommend a movie to see this weekend I would say go and see “The Big Sick” (2017), it is a truly unique movie as well as the easily the funniest comedy released this year.
“Atomic Blonde” is in theatres now.