Thursday, August 17, 2017

Nuclear Waste: Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde.

David Leitch is uncredited as co-director of John Wick, when in fact both he and Chad Stahelski helmed the film. Leitch, a career stunt man with an extremely impressive resume (name an action blockbuster between 1998 and now; he was probably involved), was content to offer his action expertise on the Keanu Reeves sleeper hit while Stahelski – himself a stunt man-cum-filmmaker – handled most of the, you know, filmmaking. Now that I’ve seen Atomic Blonde, which Leitch directed by himself, it’s clear which half of that cinematic partnership provided the storytelling skill that made John Wick such a quality film. Hint: it was the other guy. 

Atomic Blonde could have been a gift – a stylish, brutal, sexy Cold War spy thriller with wit and distinction. That’s certainly how it wants to be seen, and how Leitch and star/co-producer Charlize Theron must have seen it during production. It offers a twisty plot set in 1989 Berlin, with neon nightclubs, snowy streets, wires and silencers, and more late-80s Eurotrash needle drops than you can shake a Luftballon at. But for all those trappings, it failed to ensnare my interest, instead leading me into a morass of confusion and boredom. For such an outwardly brash film, Atomic Blonde feels flat and lifeless, and this contradictory nature constantly undercuts the fun that the film assured me I was supposed to be having.

Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (whose only other notable work was Snyder’s 300, over 10 years ago) tries to invest the story line with both the snappy smoothness of a Guy Ritchie joint and the byzantine, morally-cloudy nihilism of a John le Carré paperback. It’s not surprising that this doesn’t work, given the diametrically opposed tones of those two inspirational sources, but in this case it’s not really laudable that Johnstad wanted to have his cake and eat it too. By investing the audience’s time and attention in a labyrinthine net of double- and triple-crosses, while simultaneously trying to distract them from it with garish performances from supporting talent and a constant barrage of action sequences set to 80s pop tunes, the film dishes up neither offering in a satisfying way. I can’t claim to have been invested at all in the story of MI6 field agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron), sent to Berlin to make contact with the British station chief (James McAvoy) and recover the same plot MacGuffin that shows up in every spy movie (“It’s a list of every known active agent in the world; if the baddies get it, everyone’s cover is blown”). The other spy movie signposts are there: the stuffy, untrustworthy MI6 brass, the CIA attaché, the Stasi defector who must be escorted to safety, the undercover international agent (here played in one of the film’s only compelling performances by Sofia Boutella). They even trot out the “top agent turns up dead” trope, garnished with the unsurprising reveal that he was romantically involved with our lead, who is stuffed neatly into the fridge so the plot can get going. It’s a collection of clichés that the cast gamely tries to infuse with nuance and purpose – especially Theron – but which ultimately torpedoes the film’s ability to engage you.

Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in Atomic Blonde.

The script never feels like much more than a placeholder, and that’s because it’s just a framework upon which Leitch and Theron could hang a female John Wick action movie, and at this it halfway succeeds. Part of what makes John Wick work so well is its dedication to using every scene, whether action- or dialogue-oriented, as an opportunity to build and flesh out the mythology of the film’s world. In this context, every throat-punch and pistol-whip that Reeves expertly executes becomes a grace note on a larger symphony of action storytelling. Leitch and Theron replicate the same savage fisticuffs, staged in long, intimately choreographed sequences, that contain pretty much none of the characterization or world-building of the material they’re emulating. Thank god for Theron, who is as watchable as the day is long whether she’s judo-flipping a Soviet thug or brooding in a bathtub of ice. No matter how impressive the long-take action scenes are, her intensity and dedication are obvious, and they were the only things that kept me from glazing over.

Something else of note that Atomic Blonde achieves is a simple, unremarked feminism, a rarity in both the action and spy genres. It’s not a matter of character or plot that Lorraine is female, or that she enters into a sexual relationship with Boutella’s French agent. These elements are not commented upon or made to serve an aesthetic edge, the way the rest of the film’s presentation is. They’re just there, in the way that I hope they will be in all movies someday. Leitch and Theron don’t provide a good role model for young filmgoing girls with Lorraine, or even a great thriller for them to enjoy – but they do craft an action film led by a female star playing a bisexual spy, and that by itself is something to celebrate. Would that every little girl had crappy action films like this to grow up on and see themselves in, the way I did.

It’s obvious that the only reason Atomic Blonde exists is to act as a vehicle for Theron’s ever-growing career as an A-list action star, and to provide a plausible reason to film her executing a bunch of brutal hand-to-hand combat sequences. Let me be clear: I’m not complaining about this. I could not be happier that an extremely talented performer like Theron is headlining summer action blockbusters. It’s just a shame that Atomic Blonde itself, which actually could have been as fun as it thinks it is, was thrown out with the bathwater.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment