Saturday 16 December 2017

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

A cold war spy actionfest, Atomic Blonde kicks butt until there are no more butts to kick.

The year is 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is tumbling down. The story is told in flashback, with MI6 field agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being debriefed at the end of a raucous assignment, the CIA's Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) among her interviewers. Lorraine was inserted into Berlin after the killing of agent James Gascoigne by the KGB's Yuri Bakhtin. She connect with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), and they attempt to track down Stasi defector Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), who provided Gascoigne with a highly sensitive file revealing the names of all cold war spies, including the identity of a mysterious double agent known as Satchel.

Now Bakhtin has the file and is willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Lorraine finds Percival's methods eccentric, and also tangles with the KGB's Aleksander Bremovych and undercover French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). With hordes of rival goons and bloodthirsty spies all seeking the same prize, Loraine has to find Spyglass and keep him safe while fending off hordes of professional assassins at every turn.

Directed by David Leitch and adapted from a graphic novel, Atomic Blonde may be an attempt to kick-off a franchise revolving around super spy Lorraine Broughton. Stuck somewhere between celebrating and exploiting female empowerment, the film dissolves into endless repetition of violent episodes, whereby Lorraine tangles with and proceeds to eliminate several baddies in bone crunching close combat confrontations.

Once is fun, twice is ok, but by the time Leitch orchestrates the umpteenth one-against-many battles with pre-ordained outcomes (she survives to fight another day; the bad guys don't) in yet another empty building, any sense of tension, drama and build-up is comprehensively lost.

Clearly narrative momentum was an afterthought behind action and visual style. In amongst all the flying limbs and bullets finding their close-range targets, the plot struggles to emerge from hiding, perhaps worried about receiving a lethal kick to the side of the head. The "list of spies" that everyone is searching for is the most tired of McGuffins, and Leitch has little control over the crosses, double-crosses and triple-crosses fueling all the combat.

Atomic Blonde is bathed in cool blue and silver colours, the music is loud and filled with 1980s era pop and rock tracks as the film energetically hops between action set-pieces on either side of the crumbling wall. As an exercise in brain disengagement there is some enjoyment to be had, until duplication triumphs under the flag of exhaustion.

Theron does not so much act as glide through the film exuding cool with a singular expression of grim determination. She executes most of her stunts and looks great dishing out mayhem. James McAvoy as spy-gone-native Percival is more complex and potentially much more interesting, but Atomic Blonde has no time for character development. This spy world is an arcade game of kill or be killed every few minutes, and everything else is roadkill.

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