By: Kevin Jordan
Confusion and breasts.
It’s not often that I’m completely confused by my feelings for a movie, but Atomic Blonde is one of those instances. My immediate reaction at the end of the movie was “I think I liked it? Maybe?” It definitely had elements I liked and there weren’t any obvious (at least to me) plot holes, but I wasn’t satisfied by what I had seen. Very recently, I watched Get Out and my reaction to every reveal in the film was “Oooooohhhh…Whoa!…Oh man!” Etcetera. My reactions to the reveals in Atomic Blonde were much more “uuuhhhh…Wait, huh?..But then why…?” Etcetera. Of course, Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller, so maybe the confusion was intentional. Or, my brain is still on strike after being forced to sit through Valerian and the Way Too Long Title last week.
(SPOILER ALERT and do heed this warning. REVIEW SPOILER ALERT – I think this movie is worth a watch, so look away while you still can.)
I think my first problem with Atomic Blonde is completely subjective. Like with Baby Driver, it is impossible not to notice the music, but unlike with Baby Driver, the music is not woven into the story or relevant to the scenes. Atomic Blonde takes place in Berlin in 1989 (a few days before the fall of the Berlin Wall), so most of the music is garbage 80’s pop music (sometimes with German lyrics) that everyone waxes nostalgic about, but secretly hates. I on the other hand, openly hate that music and it’s basically what I grew up with in my early childhood (I’m currently 38 years old – you do the math). I did not care for the color palette of the film – which leaned heavily on neons and washed-out blues – nor the spray-painted stencil fonts of the title cards. If that’s your thing, great, but more importantly, what’s wrong with you?
My second problem is I think I need to see this movie again. The movie takes the saying “oh what a tangled web we weave…” to the extreme. Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is an MI6 agent tasked with recovering a list of all agents before the Russians get their hands on it. Plus, there’s a mole/double-agent in the agency. It’s literally the plot of Mission: Impossible, but with boobs and a much shittier theme song. You read that right and there’s a scene I won’t spoil for you featuring Charlize Theron doing things you would never think an A-List actress would need to do at this point in her career. But I will tell you that scene is one of the scenes that never makes sense by the end of the film.
Broughton is supposed to meet up with Berlin Station Chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who was supposed to get the list from his inside man, Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), but which was stolen from the spy Spyglass gave it to who was supposed to give it to Percival. Got that? See, I told you. And that’s the easy part. Broughton and Percival sorta-kinda work together, but it’s obvious from the start that Percival has his own agenda. In addition to them, a Russian KGB agent named Aleksander Bremovych (Roland Miller) is also trying to get the list and a French spy named Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) is there because, well, I’ll have to get back to you on that one. It’s not clear if Delphine is working on her own or with Percival, but we’re told multiple times that she is a rookie and in over her head so she shows us her boobs to distract us (and presumably Broughton, but also, maybe not). The film is basically the spy version of Duck, Duck, Goose where everyone is both a duck and a goose and Broughton gets the shit kicked out her. Except when she’s the goose, that is, and kills every duck that tapped her head. Still with me after that terrible analogy?
What’s confusing by the end of the film is that many of the character interactions don’t make much sense after all is revealed. Adding to the confusion (or subterfuge, if you buy what this film is selling), is that nearly everything we see happened in the past. Broughton is telling the entire story to her boss, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) while Gray’s boss, C (James Faulkner), looks on. Director David Leitch pulled this same technique in his only other directing stint (the terribly written, but decently choreographed John Wick), but this time you at least don’t know if Broughton completed her mission (whereas John Wick is a revenge story, so his being alive takes every ounce of suspense out of the film). So, you are left to wonder who the mole of Atomic Blonde is, if it’s someone in the debriefing room or someone in the story. But if there’s one thing Leitch is good at, it’s distracting the audience with very good action/fight scenes and naked people.
I’m tempted to lump this film in with Baby Driver as a movie that fails the substance-to-style ratio. The cynical side of me points to John Wick and wants to dump all over Atomic Blonde, but the optimistic side of me has tied that cynic to a chair and gagged him. Atomic Blonde’s characters have depth and intrigue and the movie sucks you into their world, even as the music threatens to wrench you right back out of it. Theron and McAvoy nail their roles and are very convincing in their fight scenes. I especially like how real the fights seem and how damaged the people are at the end of them. The makeup people deserve an award for making the beautiful Theron look like an extra from The Walking Dead by the time she ends her story. The moral of this story is that I’m willing to give this film the benefit of the doubt; that there might be things I missed that explain character connections that don’t appear to add up. I just don’t know if I can take the music again.
Rating: Ask for half your money back since you’ll have to see it twice.