Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, David Leitch – co-director of John Wick – makes his solo directorial debut with Atomic Blonde. Darren reviews.
An unspoken rule of movies is ‘Don’t mention a better movie, inside your own’. The reason for this should be obvious. You don’t want to draw comparisons unless you have the talent to back it up. Plus if you’re that sure of your movie’s brilliance, you should be confident enough to let it stand or fall by its own merit. So when Atomic Blonde makes nods to Casablanca or Ghost in a Shell, all you really see is how paper thin and transparent a movie it really is.
Set on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there’s a double agent inside British intelligence. After one of their own is murdered they send in Lorraine Broughton to retrieve an important dossier and track down their mole.
Choosing to set something in a different time period has certain causes and effects. It changes the aesthetic, the feel and the beats of your story. However, if all that changes is set dressing, then inevitably it’s going to be lacklustre.
The setting not only chains a character to a time period, pick one distinct enough and that setting becomes a character in its own right, and so will need some justification or even an arc. For a good example, look back at this year’s Wonder Woman: WWI might at first seem like just a stylistic choice, a quirk, but as the story progresses we see how intrinsic it is to the movie’s message about the futility and inhumanity of war.
Atomic Blonde likes the Cold War-era Soviet landscape but knows next to nothing about the history or emotions such a thing stirs up. It’s an empty style choice that adds nothing to the overall message or story other than vague set dressing. Instead of dealing with the complexities of the area, the director has decided to bash the audience over the head with news reports and neon lighting to capture a vague sense of the 80’s.
Add to this a great but overused soundtrack that is trying to tether the movie so far and so hard to the past that it does the opposite, dragging you out of the time period. Other movies use music as audio cues, both for emotional beats and pacing. Take Baby Driver, which linked music so intrinsically to its story and world, giving everything such a distinctive heartbeat that it creates great juxtaposition when it is missing. Atomic, on the other hand, uses music to break up its scenes, interrupting action moments or drowning out lines of dialogue unnecessarily. There’s no real intent.
The story itself is an overly complex spy thriller, what audiences have come to expect for Cold War drama, that tries to pass itself off as an action movie with all the subtly of a New Order song. This complexity doesn’t work and instead muddies what could have bene a solid action plot, with flash backs that rob the movie of any tension or reason to care. Generally speaking, action movies have simple goals with simple investments for the audience. To get revenge for the death of a family member or dog or the like, but Atomic Blonde forgoes this idea and wants us to stay hooked to an unlikeable lead character for no reason.
Charlize Theron is a wonderful actress, with a solid background in the action genre. You have to do a lot to make her both unlikeable and unsympathetic. With gratuitous ‘sexy’ shots of her in the last two-thirds of the movie complete with a lesbian sex scene that you can tell a straight guy thought of – plus no personality beyond stoic action girl – I found it hard to root for her. Also making the rest of the cast unlikeable, shallow and selfish characters with little-to-no redeeming qualities does not make your protagonist better by comparison.
I think that is this movie’s main problem – all style and no substance. The look is good but meaningless, never allowing the audience to take it in or make any sort of point other than vague aestheticism. The action was entertaining and borderline cartoonish with a fun ‘tired’ fight scene that stands out as one of the more realistic and engaging fight scenes in recent history, but the rest lacks any reason to invest in the character. The story is full of serviceable performances by McAvoy, Theron and Boutella but lacks the kind of character depth that helps us care what happens to any of them.
Atomic Blonde is so focused on how things looks, it doesn’t ask how things are or why they are, and includes a typical spy thriller ending that is both predictable and insulting.
At least the soundtrack is good.