It’s been a good year for women at the movies, with “Wonder Woman” saving the DC Extended Universe and “Girls Trip” being the best comedy of 2017. We were due for a misstep eventually…
“Atomic Blonde” stars Charlize Theron as an MI6 agent who must track down a defecting German with a list of undercover operatives in Berlin during the fall of the Wall in 1989. James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella and Toby Jones also star as David Leitch makes his solo directorial debut.
I was looking forward to this, mainly because the trailer was fast-paced and had a good soundtrack and I appreciate Leitch’s work on “John Wick” (although the DGA determined he wouldn’t receive co-director credit for it) and his passion for stunts (he’s a career stuntman). Charlize Theron is on a bit of a hot streak as of late, with roles in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Fate of the Furious” and here is every bit as sexy and badass as one may hope. It’s just a shame that the film as a whole, due in large part to its script, doesn’t match up to the dedication and passion of Leitch and Theron.
I’ll start with the good. The film looks great and has a killer soundtrack. Many of the people involved with “John Wick” were brought in by Leitch, including cinematographer Jonathan Sela, editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir and composer Tyler Bates, as well as some of the same stuntmen. The result is a film with the same sort of neon glow and noir feel that the original “John Wick” has, and it is at times fun to be in the world. Red lights in a bar or snow falling on a body on the streets of East Berlin look pretty and almost ripped off the pages of a comic (this is based off a 2012 graphic novel) and all the production teams should be commended. The film also has some great 80s songs, too, and I found my foot tapping on more than one occasion.
The fight scenes are breathtakingly staged, as to be expected from the minds behind “John Wick” (I’m going to try to stop comparing this meh film to that great one). There is one action sequence in here that legitimately lasts 10 minutes and appears to be all one long take. I noticed a few spots that they likely spliced clips together, but it is still a momentous accomplishment by Leitch and his team, as if the hallway scene from “Oldboy” (or Netflix’s “Daredevil” for you non-cinema lovers) had a lovechild with season one of “True Detective;” by the end of the fight we are as out of breath as Theron.
However all the pretty and playful production and well-shot fight scenes are undermined by a script that is overly-convoluted and relatively dull. Kurt Johnson has five career screenplays to his credit, “300,” “Act of Valor” and “300: Rise of an Empire” among them. Each of these films has good action but a poor narrative and dialogue, and “Atomic Blonde” is no different. The film is told in flashbacks by Theron in an interrogation room a week after the film’s events, so the constant cutting back-and-forth takes us out of the movie. In some films the “character giving a narration over flashback while being interrogated” angle works, like “The Imitation Game” or “The Usual Suspects,” because of how those films are set up and the amount of characters we learn about. Here, we don’t know much about anyone and the more we find out about them (or in the case of Theron’s character, what little we ever learn), the less we understand and care. By the end almost nothing makes sense and the film throws way too many “gotcha!” moments at the audience to try and hide the fact that it has no idea what it was doing.
I want to recommend “Atomic Blonde” just for that one 10 minute fight scene alone, but I can’t. Much like “John Wick: Chapter 2” this film is all fun and fine when fists are flying and guns are going off, but that’s probably only 20 minutes of a two hour runtime; the rest is boring spy stuff that has been done better a hundred times over. Part of me hopes that “Atomic Blonde” gets a sequel because Theron gives the role her all and the world seems like a fun one to explore, but they need to hire a screenwriter who can write storylines and dialogue worth caring about in between shootouts.
Critics Rating: 5/10