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Atomic Blonde (2017)

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Score: 4/10

Genre: Action and Spy Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.

Release Date: July 28th, 2017 MPAA Rating: R

Director: David Leitch Actors: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, James Faulkner, Roland Moller, Til Schweiger

I

t’s 1989 and the wall is coming down in Berlin, marking the end of the Cold War. But this is not a story about that – or so state the title graphics, in what the filmmakers’ hope is a cheeky introduction to a serious thriller. Yet in some strange twist for historical and political backdrops, the setting for spy games amidst East/West German conflicts has absolutely no bearing on the plot (even the use of “Atomic” in the title is never given an opportunity to reference popular Cold War fears).

Quickly, the film becomes both a convoluted chase and a mystery – neither of which are particularly inspired. The hunt is on for a list hidden in a timepiece, containing the names and details of all active clandestine operatives in the country. It’s originally handled by a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), before falling into the hands of MI6 agent Jimmy Gascoine (Sam Hargrave), before being taken by a murderous KGB goon (Jóhannes Jóhannesson). Additionally, British Intelligence has been impeded and embarrassed by a double agent known as Satchel, who must be identified and eliminated at all costs. And there’s only one person capable of obtaining the list and bringing Satchel to justice.

As evidenced by a chilly ice bath and gratuitous nudity, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, who is always watchable as a formidable, ass-kicking heroine) is the woman for the job. She excels in hand-to-hand combat, intelligence collection, and multiple languages. And so she’s given a few wigs, an abundance of fashionable outfits, and some secret identities (along with a never-ending supply of Stolichnaya vodka and cigarettes) to help her in joining forces with implanted spy David Percival (James McAvoy) in East Berlin, where his connections (and his never-ending supply of Jack Daniels) can lead the way to the coveted asset.

“Trust no one,” warns Chief C (James Faulkner), a character that only exists because it’s expected that some role of bureaucratic oversight should be tut-tutting quick-footed secret agents. This is the kind of picture that desperately wants to possess the brainpower of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” but comes across as a typical, brainless spy thriller along the lines of “Salt.” The mystery of Satchel is essentially a MacGuffin, right alongside the list of spies; each is included just to muddy up the story, which is so basic and bland that it is in grave need of complications.

The first editing interference is with the narrative, which skips ahead in time, then backtracks to the beginning – a mere 15 minutes after the movie itself commences. It’s then interrupted from time to time with a debriefing session, which does nothing save for transitioning to the next shot, which would occur either way (and perhaps it also aids in reiterating points that the scriptwriters assume will be lost on viewers, for whom they give very little credit). The second additive is the soundtrack, which booms mercilessly even during moments that would have been better with contrasting calmness. In two of the more artistically overreaching sequences, a boom box and a stereo are brought in or turned on specifically so that the events will have a song playing organically in the background. Of course, these are such stretches of realism that there’s nothing organic about them at all. They would have sounded the same if the music simply played as part of the soundtrack.

The third major entanglement for the sake of extra intricacies is the design of the action scenes themselves – one of which is most prominent due to the appearance of a lengthy shot that never cuts. Smashing up the scenery and the faces of villains (as well as Lorraine’s) while never cutting away, as numerous characters careen about a stairwell, is an impressive bit of technical and choreographic mastery, which looks as painful as it must have been painstaking to plan out all the camera movements (as it swiftly sidesteps jabs and gunshots and tries not to bump into the actors). Even though it has been done before numerous times, it’s a scene still worthy of praise. However, its effectiveness wanes when it seems so obviously inserted to spice up a segue; after the fight is over, it becomes apparent that it served little purpose other than to show some violence amid the slower notions of planning, costume changes, and generic tradecraft.

And that violence further contributes to the problems with “Atomic Blonde.” It’s vicious, brutal, and relentless, never pausing for a moment of levity or comedy. Even when a battle includes a gimmick that is intended to be funny (such as appropriating unconventional stabbing weapons or displaying understandable fatigue), it’s difficult to find the humor underneath the nastiness of flowing blood and spurting wounds. The stunts may look convincing and heavy-hitting, but the violence is severe and mean-spirited; there’s little fun to be found in the gritty way the mayhem is portrayed. It isn’t even about trying to show realistic injuries or murders; it’s just not creative or entertaining (particularly when an antagonist obligatorily beats up a teen solely to inform the audience that he’s a real bad guy, or when a freezer door is slammed into the head of a policeman, or when convenient glass coffee tables are shattered by flailing henchmen). It’s an embellishment – like the random sex and nudity – but it’s wasted on those who recognize that lurking just beneath the visual frenzy is a straightforward, predictable plot.

– Mike Massie

 



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