Film reviews and more since 2009

Atomic Blonde (2017) review

Dir. David Leitch

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

The production company 87Eleven and director David Leitch (director of the upcoming Deadpool 2) are both onto something after successfully kickstarting a niche franchise with John Wick and doubling back around to give basically the same treatment to a film adaptation of Antony Johnson and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City.

Atomic Blonde takes notes from the Bourne, Bond, and The Raid franchises to become an exercise in hyper-stylized, gratuitous violence, artfully conveyed if monotonously justified through monotone conversations. In a post-Kill Bill landscape, it’s nothing we haven’t seen but it works as a capable catalog release for what will probably be a household name studio for martial arts and action movie fans in due time if it’s not already.

It’s 1989. The Berlin Wall is just a blink-of-an-eye away from being demolished and a highly skilled, half-woman, half-Terminator spy named Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is apprehended by her superior officer (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent (John Goodman) intent on learning what Lorraine has uncovered over the past few days. Lorraine was dispatched to piece together the circumstances that resulted in the death of an undercover agent, and along the way, met a Berlin chief named David (James McAvoy) and Delphine (Sofia Boutella from Kingsman: The Secret Service), with whom she formed alliances. But Lorraine is never fully committed to anyone nor indebted to any individual as she carries herself with intoxicating energy and skilled hand-to-hand combat, her preferred method of attack even when there is a gun in her waistband.

It almost goes without saying how great Charlize Theron is, rivaling only Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman as the most interesting lead in an action film this year. Theron with her bleached hair, leather getup, brash vocal-tone, and cynical attitude compliment her skills and character immensely well. She fits like a glove in a role that was tailor-made for her, and not only does she practically exist in every frame of the movie, but she precludes everyone around her even as they do competent work. Hot off of the unexpected hit Split, McAvoy is menacing as David and, with the limited screentime she’s given, Boutella is a pretty interesting actress too, although her relationship with Theron’s Lorraine is still burdened by too much of a male gaze.

Atomic Blonde is at its most entertaining when we see Theron and the respective stunt actors exhaust and contort themselves into a variety of positions in order to perform the acrobatic combat so ingrained in Johnson and Hart’s story (adapted by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad). Johnstad doesn’t write in a lot of gunplay, and I recall only a handful of moments where Lorraine actually fires a weapon. This allows for a more natural, organic display of action to prosper over cheap shootouts and a plethora of memorable moments as a result. There’s even as a moment – as seen in the trailers – where Lorraine fastens a large rope around the neck of a policeman before sprinting off of her balcony, rope in hand, to swing down to a lower platform that’s taken directly out of The Raid: Redemption yet still somehow just as captivating. I think I found the one unique move in martial arts movies that doesn’t get old.

If you can forgive an overwritten narrative and familiar quips to further the plot, you should have no problem enjoying Atomic Blonde on its own merits. Through an icy exterior and subzero cinematography, the film even sprinkles in some exuberant quirkiness into its story, such as moments where Lorraine uses a choice ten-letter c-word on Goodman and David claims the heavily product-placed Jack Daniels is from “the Virgin Mary’s tit.” Both of these scenes exist within the film’s first ten minutes.

At 115 minutes, Atomic Blonde is overlong, and its heavily stylized, mostly empty flash becomes grating as the film tacks about two endings on to what would’ve been a blissful, biting conclusion. The good thing about this, however, is that the length doesn’t interfere with Theron’s performance, which solidifies her capabilities as a modern-day action movie star, especially after Mad Max: Fury Road. At only 41, the veteran actress has starred in a variety of vehicles and blockbusters that have her transcending the usually suffocating boundaries of lousily written female roles, and she functions so well here because she’s given room to maneuver. A standout performance this uniformly solid will make up for even the most derivative of screenplays, especially if it also adds to the commendable authenticity of a soon-to-be blossoming production company.

NOTE: As of this writing, Atomic Blonde is available to rent on multiple platforms.

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, and John Goodman. Directed by: David Leitch.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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