Charlize Theron Is The Be All / End All Of This Movie
A second viewing of Atomic Blonde on home video confirms it to be a rock solid action spy thriller. The same second viewing also confirms that while it’s solid, it doesn’t necessarily add up to more than the sum of its parts.
There are a lot of moving pieces that make up Atomic Blonde. This statement can be applied to most any film, in truth, but is quite relevant here. This is a 1980s period piece. It’s a Berlin Wall falling tale (even though it insists it isn’t). It’s a twisty espionage thriller. It’s an unapologetic action film. It’s a star vehicle for producer and star Charlize Theron. And it’s a stylistic calling card for post-John Wick director David Leitch.
I recently made the argument when reviewing Blade Runner 2049 that style is substance. At least in the case of that film, this was very true. (2049 also has a lot to say, it’s just that its style is essential and elevating). Atomic Blonde is a highly stylized piece of work, from the juke box approach of 1980s needle drops, to the neon lighting dripping in almost every frame, to the outfits and “scene” being explored behind the wall in Berlin. Many balked at the overt and potentially over stylized approach taken by the Atomic Blonde team. It’s at the very least a layer of the film which cannot be ignored. And I think it adds a layer of naked enjoyment to a tale that isn’t exactly filled with light humor and giggles.
Which brings me to the winding spy narrative. This is not the film’s strong suit. Adapted from a graphic novel entitled The Coldest City, this story lives up to that moniker as a cold, occasionally distant affair. Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is calculated and methodical by default. She’s a spy cast from a similar mold as Daniel Craig’s Bond in this regard. The “McGuffin”-y narrative of Broughton and her contact Percival (James McAvoy in a solid performance that’s more grounded than his turn in Split, even though he’s regularly wearing a fur coat and a sleeveless sweater) attempting to track down both a list of all spies operating in Berlin AND a double agent codenamed Satchel is the most rote part of the film. Spy movies constantly seem to involve the tracking down of a list of names, and not much new is brought to this element. The identity of Satchel is, however, a spot of fun amidst the iciness.
So with the muted tone of the spy narrative, and the occasionally questionable “on the nose” nature of the style, a couple of elements really tip Atomic Blonde into the “good movie” column. And those elements are the action sequences (which are admittedly few and far between, but which are also centerpieces of the film and bring it roaring to life) and Charlize Theron’s performance and execution of those sequences.
This movie just doesn’t work without Charlize Theron in the lead. Period. If this were a male-led cast, it would have been dead on arrival. Broughton is inherently more interesting because of her innate femininity mixed with the cool and capable attitude normally reserved for male characters on the big screen. Her outfits, her approach to sexuality, her cunning awareness of men’s weaknesses giving her a leg up… the character is compelling and held together with a ferocity by Theron.
Theron’s commitment to Leitch’s approach to action also elevates Atomic Blonde. Leitch rose to fame as a stunt and action choreographer along with his 87Eleven action team. These are the folks responsible for some of the greatest action sequences and films of recent memory. Keanu Reeves’ transformation into an onscreen badass who is clearly executing most of his own action choreography in the John Wick films? That was 87Eleven. Theron underwent the same level of training and this pays off in spades on screen. The much-lauded “single take” fight sequence that is clearly the highlight of the film is a result of meticulous planning and commitment to a vision. The less lauded action sequences are also remarkable and might have been highlights in a dozen lesser action films.
When you take the disparate elements of a film as busy as Atomic Blonde and mix them all together, you don’t get a perfect film. There are issues here. But the hard work and risks taken provide the kindling, and Theron brings the spark to set the film alight. Among the better action films of 2017, Atomic Blonde won’t be remembered as flawless (or even great cinema), but it does the work and achieves the results. It further cements Theron as one of the big screen’s most bankable action heroes period, not to mention her being a female. It also heralds David Leitch as an interesting filmmaker willing to assert his own style and voice even if it isn’t always received with open arms by expectant fans.
- The film on Blu-ray, DVD, & Digital
- Deleted/Extended Scenes
- Welcome To Berlin
- Blondes Have More Gun
- Anatomy Of A Fight Scene
- Story In Motion with David Leitch Commentary
- Feature Commentary with Leitch and Editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
And I’m Out.
Atomic Blonde hits home video Nov. 14th, 2017 from Universal and Focus Features.