I expected “Atomic Blonde” to be an atomic bomb, a thermonuclear dud featuring a tall, skinny, bisexual James Bond played by a tall, skinny, gun-hating South African. What I got was . . . .
And a well-worn plot at that. Atomic Blonde takes place during the weeks before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a world-changing event that presaged the collapse of the old Soviet Empire and the swift relocation of its capital from Moscow to San Francisco.
A Stasi double agent code-named “Spyglass” (maybe the code name “Double Agent” was taken) wants to defect to the West with a list of espionage agents, counter-agents, double agents, triple agents and real estate agents, and all the dirty deeds that they’d done dirt cheap. It’s such an intel bonanza that everybody wants The List bad enough to kill for it. Many times over. Which they certainly do.
Missing microfilm is a tired spy movie trope that never seems to go out of style even though it should. On the MacGuffin scale, The List is left in the dust by Rosebud, the Maltese Falcon and whatever shiny thing Marcellus Wallace stuck in that briefcase.
When a British spy named James Gasciogne becomes the first in a long line of agents killed for The List, Her Majesty’s Secret Service dispatches MI6 Deluxe Super-Agent Extraordinaire Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to a divided Berlin to bring home the dead agent’s body and The List (not necessarily in that order) and to expose a traitor in Berlin code-named “Satchel.”
Broughton is tall, lanky, brilliant, expert in hand-to-hand combat and firearms, hits from both sides of the plate and so blonde that the audience needs shades.
Upon landing in Berlin, Broughton is immediately picked up by the KGB, possibly for the capital crime of impersonating a fashion model.
Extreme violence ensues, making it clear to the audience, popcorn vendors and solicitors for The Will Rogers Home for Unwed Actors that The List is very important, Satchel is a sneaky bastard, the body count is going to be monumental and Agent Gasciogne is going to be ripening on that Berlin slab for a long time before his body gets shipped back to Blighty.
All issues will be resolved in the closing scenes, but until then there will be double-crosses, triple crosses, quadruple crosses, right crosses, Iron Crosses – this plot has more crosses than Forest Lawn, and almost as many bodies.
Speaking of right crosses and bodies, this movie features . . . .
Fight Scenes Galore
In fact, this flick seems like a bunch of fights and car crashes strung together ad nauseum. The fights are among the most intense and vicious on film, with the tall skinny star doling out a lot of the physical punishment while withstanding heavy blows that would kill a Lipizzaner.
Compared to the soon-to-be-famous stairway battle in “Atomic Blonde,” the blistering, life and death sleeping-car brawl in “From Russia With Love” between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw now seems like a giggling wrestling match between lovestruck English public school boys. The only way to make these scenes more violent would be to actually bump off a few actors on camera, an idea that’s likely percolating among Hollywood big shots right now.
In some of the fights, speeding cars, hands and feet reign supreme, supplemented however by knives, sticks, stiletto heels, articles of home décor, a garden hose, a garrote, an ice pick, a large desk phone of sturdy German manufacture, major kitchen appliances, a hot plate, a skateboard, car bumpers, car doors, car keys and any other improvised weapons that might prove effective, with just enough Makarov rounds popped off to alert the viewer to what’s coming next.
What’s coming next includes gun fights with bloodshed of John Wickian proportions, including numerous head shots with gore and spray aplenty. John Wick fans have seen the shots before, many times over. A bad guy takes one to the dome, turning his coconut into Old Faithful and spattering the walls with red, red vino, brain matter and a few spritzes of Ronco GLH-9 hair-in-a-can. Call it “the Wickochet Shot” if you will, but whatever part of the budget for “Atomic Blonde” that didn’t go toward peroxide for Theron’s coiffure was spent on buckets of Red Dye #2 for the walls.
David Leitch, the former stunt double who helmed “Atomic Blonde,” was also the uncredited co-director of “John Wick,” so nothing less than a plethora of exploding heads was expected. Moreover, to prepare for “Atomic Blonde,” Theron trained with Keanu Reeves (her former co-star in “The Devil’s Advocate”), who was tuning up his death-dealing skills as he practiced for “John Wick Chapter 2.” For the most part, Theron’s physical and gun training seems to have paid off, although she did perform more needless press checks than a Secret Service guard after a Presidential news conference.
Speaking of fights, it’s a good thing that the U.S. never had to fight the Russians and the East Germans, because if one believed this movie, those boys could take more punishment and are immune to more pain than any hopped-up Philippine Moro. Stab them, choke them, run them over, crack their heads, shoot them, kick them squarely in the Hodensack, it doesn’t matter. Even with car keys embedded in their cheeks, you can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them. And they come back over and over and over, like Jason on the first day of summer camp.
But just to prove that’s it’s not only about the violence, “Atomic Blonde” also features . . . .
Lesbian Love Scenes!
Hot diggity dog! Now we’re talking the stuff of Hollywood legend. Between acts of bloody wet work, English Agent Broughton and French Agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) manage to sneak away for some steamy wet work, just to relieve stress and pump up ticket sales.
Whether these scenes are a feature or an embarrassment is up to the viewer, but it’s worth noting for the record that despite appearing together in ten movies, six novels and at least one video game, James Bond and Felix Leiter never bumped uglies. Not together anyway.
Still, Boutella’s smoky sensuality can’t be ignored, nor can the fact that, at age 41, Theron looks her best while fully clothed.
Speaking of being fully clothed, what seems to make the most impact isn’t the sex or violence, it’s . . . .
Cool Clothes and A Great Sound Track
Theron puts on a dazzling fashion show with her fabulous vintage Dior, Saint Laurent, Galliano and Burberry styles, oversized sunglasses and wild footwear, while the rest of the cast, save Boutella, looks like their attire was fished from an East German Goodwill box. The well-dressed Theron dominates every scene, due in no small measure to the fact that she’s at least 6’2” in that wild footwear and taller than most of the cast.
People of a certain age who lived through the Cold War remember it as a frightening time for some, with Berlin as one of several hot spots voted most likely to turn the cold war hot. The music selected for this film reflects the fear and paranoia of the time, and each tune is well placed to advance the story and make people of a certain age all dewy with nostalgia.
Viewers who ‘memba Nena’s “99 Luftballons ” (“99 Red Balloons” in the English-language version), “Major Tom,” “Under Pressure,” “Der Kommisar,” “London Calling,” and any synth-pop of the time by Depeche Mode, will enjoy the period sound track (with really good covers). Viewers who do not remember the collapse of the Soviet Union should would be better served by watching “Baby Driver” or “Despicable Me 3.”
A listener may be excused for believing that yesterday’s music was better than today’s. Okay, so “99 Red Balloons” isn’t “99 Problems,” but the older number is still an evocative and tuneful little ditty in German. And besides, “Ich habe 99 Probleme, aber eine Hündin ist nicht eins” just doesn’t sound right, does it?
While Atomic Blonde doesn’t attain the brooding, bleak atmosphere of “Funeral in Berlin” or “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” – both set at the height of the Cold War, not at the end of it — the music helps to build the correct mood for a period thriller. In any case, the sound track and costumery is better than this film’s . . . .
Mediocre Acting and Directing
Theron struts through “Atomic Blonde” like it was a commercial for Dior J’Adore, right down to the runway horse walk. Trying to affect a jaded, Harry Palmer-ish (see “Funeral in Berlin”) cynicism, she often just seems bored, even while dallying with Sofia Boutella — which is a trick that most men could not manage even after a bellyful of Buffalo Trace.
Surprisingly, though, Theron hits all the right, high-energy notes during her fight scenes, although she was obviously doubled in many shots. The thought that she could physically match the burly Germans and Russians who are trying unsuccessfully to kick her bony ass is, in a word, absurd. Nevertheless, if any movie needs a skinny female superhero to beat up hulking professional assassins who are built like refrigerators, Theron would be as solid a choice as anyone (with the possible exception of the even-scrawnier Angelina Jolie).
James McAvoy is miscast as David Percival, MI6’s Berlin section chief, and the part is cartoonishly miswritten. McAvoy’s Percival is a manic, smirking, drug using, whoring, intense and obvious loose cannon who acts like a nut and dresses like a schlemiel. Is that really the kind of person that the Brits would leave in charge of the most important espionage post in Europe, and maybe the world?
No, MI6 would have an Oxford grad who would be intense but subtle, sophisticated, oily and treacherous. It also hurts that Theron at 5’10” towers over the shorter McAvoy, to the point where she wears heels in most scenes except when onscreen with him, when she wears flats so that McAvoy didn’t have to wear stilts.
As for John Goodman, all anyone can say is: trim that beard, man. It looks like a hedgehog is eating your face.
Some of the blame for the failures of “Atomic Blonde” must fall on the director’s shoulders. John Wick fans will not be disappointed in the action, because David Leitch handles the difficult and deliriously wild fight and chase scenes with flash and verve. Unfortunately, Leitch often mishandles the pacing between bloodbaths, using Tarantino-like flashbacks, flashforwards, jump cuts and intertitles that might have worked in the source material but didn’t work onscreen.
Leitch doesn’t deserve all the blame. The great spy thrillers shot in the sixties through the eighties were based on works by stalwarts like Len Deighton, John le Carré and Ken Follett. Source material often determines movie quality, and even Hollywood hack writers and directors sometimes find it difficult (but hardly impossible) to butcher the work of master authors. In Leitch’s defense, it must be noted that “Atomic Blonde” was based on a graphic novel – what used to be called a comic book back in the period of this movie. Art it may be. Literature it isn’t.
Fortunately, “Atomic Blonde” has . . . .
An Oddly Satisfying Conclusion
In most movies, the conclusion merely ends the film and lets the audience know that it’s time to leave the theater via the well-marked exits to the left and right. Sometimes the conclusion saves the movie or tries to, as in the backwards and often-confusing “Memento” and the absurd but entertaining “Basic.” Sometimes, the conclusion is the entire point.
The latter group includes “The Usual Suspects,” which stands head and shoulders above “Atomic Blonde” in that regard. However, “Atomic Blonde” utilizes not one but two big reveals, and while AB doesn’t even come close to TUS in twist endings, most viewers left the theater feeling better about wasting 115 minutes of their time.
Oh, and “Atomic Blonde” has . . . .
Guns! Commie Guns!
Fans of COMBLOC firepower will dig “Atomic Blonde.” Of course, Broughton and many of the villains wield Makarovs by the score, suppressed and otherwise, which is as it should be. Mirabile dictu, the suppressed gunfire sounded more like, well, suppressed gunfire than a burst of wet farts. That’s the good. As for the bad, the 9×18mm Makarov must be the weakest round in the history of the Warsaw Pact, suitable only for explosive head shots, since Soviet operatives seem to be able to withstand multiple center-mass hits from Broughton’s guns with no discernable effects.
Just to prove that she’s no Commie, Theron, who hates guns, does some fine shooting with a Browning Hi-Power. Theron also threatens Agent Lasalle with a snub-nosed revolver that she had hidden somewhere about her person. I don’t want to guess where.
An assassination with a suppressed sniper rifle is thwarted by – a whole lot of umbrellas. Silly, but I liked it anyway as the most effective umbrella use since “Singing in the Rain.”
As Cold War spy thrillers go, “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t. It’s an action movie with just enough time between bloodlettings to run out for popcorn or to use the facilities. Owing more to “John Wick” than “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” it’s unlikely that “Atomic Blonde” will revive the genre of the Cold War spy thriller, which is too bad. The genre needed another Harry Palmer from “The Ipcress File,” or even a better Bond, James Bond. Instead, it got a well-dressed, comic book Blonde, Lorraine Blonde.
SPECIFICATIONS: Atomic Blonde
Caliber: 9×18 Makarov
Length: 115 minutes
Action: Wild, lengthy and brutal. Between the fight scenes: mild, lengthy and brutal.
Price: $30 million. How much is that in 1989 Deutsch Marks?
Ratings (out of five bullets):
Style * * * * *
There’s way more style than substance here. Fight scenes are graphic and novel, befitting the story’s origin as a graphic novel. The music is great and the fashion is Oscar-worthy. After watching “Atomic Blonde,” you may not believe that the 80s was the smartest decade ever, but you might believe that it was the best dressed.
Reliability * * *
Theron dazzles in period couture. The acting is unexceptional, the dialog is pedestrian, the story is highly derivative and the pacing stumbles. The first reveal makes sense. The coda doesn’t, but it does pull the movie together.
Overall * * * 1/2
As a Cold War spy thriller, “Atomic Blonde” takes a back seat to many others that were filmed during the Cold War and based on something called “a book.”