Atomic Blonde (2017)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/30/17
Director: David Leitch
Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella

"It is twice the pleasure to deceive the deceiver."

Taking place in Berlin during the political upheaval of 1989, "Atomic Blonde" is a Cold War thriller in which British intelligence agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) recounts her attempts to retrieve a list of highly sensitive information before the entire intelligence community is compromised. Her contact in Germany is an unpleasant and untrustworthy fellow named David Percival (James McAvoy), and the two of them try to outwit each other at every opportunity. Lorraine also makes use of a naïve French operative named Delphine (Sofia Boutella), and their little fling ensures the film's R rating. While getting the list is of the utmost importance, Lorraine's secondary mission objective is to expose the identity of a double agent known as Satchel. Unfortunately for her, she's been set up from the very beginning, and spends the entire film under fire and on the run.

I had high expectations for the film and they were dashed almost immediately. Keep in mind that this is essentially the film I've been wanting to make for the last thirty years, so I'm probably viewing it with a more critical eye than most people. As I feared, all of the best moments are shown in the film's two trailers, which leaves you with ninety minutes of uninteresting filler material to deal with. I wish I had been able to go into the movie with no prior knowledge of it, as that would have increased my engagement and left me thrilled and surprised instead of disappointed. Director David Leitch appears to be way out of his depth, and the film is an incoherent mess of loud music, bright colors, schizophrenic paranoia, and raw brutality. And smoking. LOTS of smoking. In fact, there are probably more cigarettes in the film than bullets, and the brazenly glamorous presentation becomes increasingly annoying after about the twentieth time. More than anything, the movie comes across as a smoking fetish film, which is deliberate and glaringly obvious. I felt like the mere act of watching it put me at risk for lung cancer.

Much to my surprise, the soundtrack actually works against the film and is a constant irritant. While I appreciated the 80's inspired pop tunes, the selection was less than ideal (I utterly despise Nina Hagen's "99 Luftballons") and the music was so loud and overbearing that it tended to overpower what was happening onscreen. Depeche Mode is dance music, not fighting music, and as much as I like A Flock Of Seagulls, listening to "I Ran" during a car chase was a serious buzzkill that completely sabotaged the scene. The flashback framework doesn't do the film any favors and only succeeds in confusing the viewer, disrupting the pace, and deflating any dramatic tension. The characters aren't particularly likable, which isn't necessarily a bad thing when you're dealing with spies and traitors, but the writing is weak and predictable, and the dialog is regrettably awful. It's so frustrating when the film's most impressive action sequence is nearly ruined by a stupid and inappropriate one-liner. Was that really necessary?

Despite the fact that I was constantly distracted and annoyed by the narrative structure and numerous artistic decisions, the film gets two very important things right: Lorraine Broughton's character and the fighting scenes. As far as female action heroines go, Lorraine's no-nonsense presentation is one of the best the genre has to offer, and Charlize Theron's intense and unwavering performance is spot-on. Actions speak louder than words, and her character is never compromised or diminished by the male figures in the film, which is something I greatly appreciated. Apart from a couple of questionable fashion choices, Ms. Theron looks fantastic and is an unstoppable force of will whose piercing eyes and withering glare are just as deadly as the weapons she wields. It's also worth noting that the shoe continuity is superb throughout all of the action scenes.

The film hinges on five or six extraordinary fight sequences between Lorraine and multiple bad guys, which are stunningly executed and a total thrill to watch. Ms. Theron is front and center in all of these and her forceful and unrestrained delivery is extremely convincing. It's apparent that she trained very hard for the film, and her dedication to the tough and physically demanding role is extremely admirable. The most shocking and technically sophisticated scene in the film is a seemingly single uninterrupted shot as Lorraine dispatches a dozen assailants in close quarters combat across multiple floors of an apartment building. Theron and the other performers are visibly exhausted by the end of the take, and look totally beaten up. There must have been some digital trickery involved, as Ms. Theron's cuts and bruises become dramatically worse throughout the encounter. Apart from some frustrating handheld camera work, this fight is utterly brilliant and is the main reason for seeing the film. Coming from a stunt performer background, Leitch handles the hard hitting action choreography and cinematography much better than he handles the rest of the film. He shoots in long and wide shots, and even with a locked down camera in order to capture the full impact of the stunt choreography and the performances. It's just a shame the rest of the film didn't receive as much care and attention as the action scenes.

It's really sad that the trailers literally spoil EVERY aspect of the film so that there's nothing left to look forward to. A well-crafted trailer should be an appetizer, not dessert. But if you don't let that get you down and you can look past all of the minor flaws and objectionable details, "Atomic Blonde" delivers some of the best female-driven action scenes that you're likely to see outside of the Asian market, and is a highly respectable entry in the female action genre.