As the credits began to roll for ‘Atomic Blonde’, my mind did two things. Firstly, it continued to compile a list of comparisons to other films that had begun during the opening moments, and secondly, it was trying to comprehend the twist in that last scene. For as I eased back in my chair, resting my hands on the back of my head, and intertwining my fingers. My brain automatically began the process of dissecting and analysing all I had just witnessed, and I was struck by the film’s blatant audacity to so heavily borrow from other films and adverts whilst also creating its own style.
‘Atomic Blonde’ is directed by David Leitch, who also directed ‘John Wick’, and the connections between the two are prominent. For although the world of secret assassins in high-end hotels is gone and replaced by a network of spies who deal with secret messages in watches. The music, fashion and action sequences are comparability similar.
‘Atomic Blonde’ is steeped in connections to other films. Not necessarily through direct reference, but rather aesthetic and narrative choices such as clothing, music and scenes transitions. For instance, there is a moment where the film’s protagonist Broughton (Charlize Theron), describes a feeling akin to watching something burn, and the camera effect is to literally burn the film into the next scene, creating a bubbly molten effect, think ‘Fight Club’. Now while I am aware that ‘Fight Club’ does not own this transition, I personally haven’t seen many films use it and so am instantly transported back to said film, and there are quite a few more examples of this.
The film opens with an undercover MI6 agent who is running for his life. The scenes aesthetics are a mix of heavy snow, a particular lighting, and a CGI backdrop, all of which which gave me the strong impression that I was watching a Zack Snyder film, whose influence on the director is quite clear. As although there may not be a montage of slow-motion shots, both the transitions between scenes and the music are strongly reminiscent of Snyder’s early work, such as 2011’s ‘Sucker Punch’ and 2009’s ‘Watchmen’.
Moving beyond comparisons, ‘Atomic Blonde’ is based on the graphic novel, ‘The Coldest City’ by Antony Johnson and Sam Hart, and from the outset that comic book style is clear. Wonderful bold choices of sharp colours such as pinks, turquoise and whites against a grey backdrop provide the initial style choices for the film, and delightfully so. For although I may complain about the comparisons, the film does have its own style, even if that style is an amalgamation of those influences. It’s a bloody, but fun playground in the heart of 1989 Berlin. A game of lies, deception, and manipulation is underfoot as the KGB, CIA and MI6 are all in the pursuit of a list that names and shames every undercover agent currently working in the city. The British have two spies in place, Gascoigne (Sam Hargrave) and Percival (James McAvoy). When Gascoigne is killed, not a spoiler as it’s literally the opening scene, it sparks the catalyst for Broughton (Charlize Theron) to be sent into the city to work with Percival and find the list.
McAvoy is solid good fun. His character has been in Berlin for a very long time, specifically East Berlin were scenes of punk culture are thriving. Here he seems to have adapted to his environment by embodying characteristics from his character in ‘Filth’, and costume choices from ‘Fight Club’s Tyler Durden in order to create a convincing persona.
Theron on the other hand is a different matter entirely. Her stunning good looks are matched by her steely gaze and intensity. Her character would appear to be a personification of the stunning beauty, and glamour of femininity. Indeed, one too many of her scenes strongly resemble adverts for a new perfume, all that’s missing is the marketing line. Yet her character is not to be approached lightly, for in each scene various marks on her body are exposed, almost becoming a collage of bruises and scraps marking each fight she finds herself in and invariably winning. These marks speak to the films authenticity for each shot, with each brutal punch, attack and fall leaving a mark, and raising the level of realism for the film, which is both impressive and fascinating to watch.
The bi-sexuality of the character is a conundrum, it’s clearly some sort of statement on the modern action/spy thriller, but one I am not entirely sure as to what it is trying to say. There are two theories. It could be saying that bi-sexuality is absent from action cinema as most lead films are dominated by men and heterosexual relationships, and now, ‘the times they are a changin’. Or, it could simply be that by using the stunning good looks of Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella, the film simply wants ramp up the sex appeal of the film. It’s rather tricky to determine, with no clear indication either way. The film is without a doubt incredibly sexy and glamorous for the female characters, and though there is at least one scene for McAvoy of this nature, the focus is very much on the women.
As you would expect from the man who made ‘John Wick’, the action sequences are impressive, though I do have to question the reaction speed of the guards during some of the fights, for surely as a guard in Berlin during the Cold War, you are constantly on the lookout for unusual activity, and one would assume you are ready at a moment’s notice. For when Percival approaches a pair of guards after his initial character introduction, he attacks one guard whilst the other stands and patiently waits for his turn. It’s ridiculous, distracting and something I thought director David Leitch had overcome during his time working on ‘John Wick’. However, he does redeem himself during a one-shot near the end of the film. Here we see Broughton dragging an injured informant, known as Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), into a building for a remarkable 10-minute continuous action sequence.
The spy narrative is decent as it stays in tune with the classic spy thriller in regards to pacing, one with the addition of big action sequences. My issues are the twists and turns that normally accompany a really good spy thriller, for this script is clearly designed to point solidly in one direction for nearly the entirety of the film. The script is designed to purposefully reveal who we are meant to suspect, before just blatantly waving a red flag in our faces. A spy thriller this is, but not one that is even trying to understand subtly, which rather defeats the point of the genre. Furthermore, while the final twist of the film is interesting, and I will admit I did not see it coming, you’re really not meant to. For more scenes are shown to give evidence as to why this played out in the way it did, but all these additional scenes are new, which somewhat diminishes the energy of the final surprise, and feels more like a writing cheat than a thought-out narrative.
OVERALL *** ‘Atomic Blonde’ has the action directive of ‘John Wick’, and the narrative of a poor man’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, with a helping of some really glamorised shots.
RECOMMENDATION – Solid entertainment, even if the narrative is a little disappointing in parts, yet, ‘Atomic Blonde’ is a film I would watch again and again.