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Friday, July 28, 2017

Atomic Blonde

Director David Leitch (John Wick) spent years working as a stuntman, and it shows in Atomic Blonde.  This is a stylish and hyper-violent spy movie that features some well-executed stuntwork, and Charlize Theron as a secret agent who apparently has studied every form of hand-to-hand combat ever devised, and knows how to make just about anything into a weapon.  It can be exciting, and it is.  Except for when the incoherent plot keeps on getting in the way of the fun.

What made John Wick work is that it was a simple revenge movie that played upon Leitch's strengths as a stunt choreographer and performer.  It didn't get bogged down in a convoluted plot we care little about as Blonde does.  And yet, I don't regret watching this in the slightest.  There are moments of great action here, perhaps some of the best we have seen all summer.  It's just not quite as much fun as it could have been if it had just been allowed to be a silly, all-out action spectacle.  Instead, we get a winding and twisting story about a microfilm, shifting alliances, and so many double crosses that it's hard to keep who's betraying who straight.  This is a movie that should have been boiled down to just its most basic essentials.  If it had, we'd probably be looking at one of the great movies of the summer.

Theron plays a member of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service named Lorraine Broughton.  She's filled with a cool indifference that pretty much lets you know that she means business almost from the second she walks on the screen.  Theron is obviously relishing this character, and it shows.  She's buff and performs a lot of her own elaborate stunts and fight scenes, the most memorable being one that comes late in the film that is a continuous and unbroken sequence of a fight that occurs on a staircase, with Theron flinging bad guys left, right, and down the stairs while the camera whirls around her.  From her introduction scene, where we see her stepping out of a bathtub of ice water to sooth her broken body, she commands the screen, and pretty much owns the entire movie.  She's such a cool and fascinating character that it's a real shame the script can't think of a better mission to send her on.

What it all boils down to is that Broughton has to travel to Berlin in 1989, when the city was pretty much on the verge of revolution.  She has to track down a microfilm that contains some highly confidential information, and fight off every thug, spy or gun-wielding goon unfortunate enough to try to stop her.  There's a lot of double dealings, flashbacks, flashforwards, and a certain kinetic energy to the style of the filmmaking.  But even with all the impressively mounted sequences and action, I couldn't hide from the fact that I just didn't care about what was happening whenever Theron wasn't kicking butt and taking names.  It creates kind of an imbalance within the film itself.  Sometimes I was giddy with excitement, and other moments, I couldn't wait for the movie to just get on with the next scene.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and since nobody ever seems to be what they really are or are hiding some kind of secret, it quickly gets ridiculous.

Another thing that Atomic Blonde does benefit from is its sense of style and recreating the time period the story is set.  We not only get a lot of great music from the time period, but there's also a lot of vintage news clips of when the Wall was coming down, which the story is built around.  There is a constant sense of time and place, and it does so in a way that doesn't distract.  The rock music on the soundtrack is well-chosen, and seems well suited to the visuals.  This is a well-made movie.  It is also a well-acted movie.  Aside from Theron, we also get some good turns from James McAvoy, John Goodman and Toby Jones.  Honestly, I really want to be gushing about this movie, but I can't get over my disappointment of plot, which dominates so much of the film's running time.

I'm all for David Leitch trying his hand again with another action movie.  He definitely has more than enough talent to deliver some genuine thrills.  I just hope he realizes that his strength is with visuals and kinetic action, not with storytelling.  At least not yet.  I don't want anyone to hold him back from making the effort.  This guy is the real deal, and with more time behind the camera, I think he could be one of the best the genre has seen in a while.

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