Directed by David Leitch
Written by Kurt Johnstad
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan
Honestly, I’ve never heard of nor read Anthony Johnston’s The Coldest City. I only know that the graphic novel is more a straight-forward tale of a British agent dispatched to Berlin warding off various intelligence operatives to recover a stolen list. Oh, and that the character of Lorraine Broughton is a tad more intelligent and a brunette. Nevertheless, Johnston’s 2012 critic darling caught the eye of Charlize Theron, who saw herself stepping into the role of the rough and rowdy MI6 agent. (Yeah, Theron isn’t British, but she sure as hell has the look down.) Sure, five years of attempting to bring the story to screen could have stopped her, but here we are, summer 2017 and her tireless efforts are finally on the screen for us to enjoy. Alright, so Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road may have been the perfect audition tape for her, but with director David Leitch on-board for his first solo directorial effort, Atomic Blonde was ready to lens and thrill audiences.
There’s one thought I had as I sauntered out of the theater and slummed my way back to my car. It wasn’t the fact that Charlize Theron easily owns the most badass female protagonist on screen this year. (Sorry Logan, but Theron’s Lorraine Broughton could paint the walls with X-23’s bloodied mug.) Nor was it the fact that the trippy and glitzy camerawork envisioned by David Leitch leaves an indelible imprint, faithfully articulating the glam of the late Eighties onto the screen with a buzzy warm nostalgia. No, really, I think it was because I suddenly longed to see Daniel Craig’s stoic James Bond back on the screen.
Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but the guts of Atomic Blonde borrow heavily from many of the Bond franchise’s stories. Double agents, discerning who to trust, mayhem around every corner, sure, we’ve seen this all before. Atomic Blonde doesn’t attempt to rewrite the book on spy thrillers – really, Barbara Broccoli and Tom Wilson at EON Productions are already excelling with the newer Bond films. But Theron’s MI6 agent isn’t the silver-tongued type of spy we would see haunting Berlin. Nor is she trying to be Harry Palmer either. Maybe more Jason Bourne with a dash of John LeCarre thrown in for good measure. But the 1989 Berlin that Broughton is stalking is dark, unfriendly, and cold, not just in the temperature but in the attitude. I’ll hand it to the crew – armed with a $30 million budget from Focus Features (an arm of Comcast Corp) and shooting in Budapest, the production crew made Hungarian streets look a lot like a distressed Berlin. Not since Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Solider Spy in 2011 has a film evoked the actual feel of the year and environment. Sure, Bond may occur in modern day, but to transplant audiences back 28 years to a whole different era? That’s fantastic work by director David Leitch.
David Leitch may have been uncredited for his work in 2014’s John Wick but reportedly got his gig directing Deadpool 2 based on his work for this spy thriller. And really, despite Atomic Blonde‘s problems, his directing is far from one of them. Leitch has his own sense of framing scenes, training the camera at the right angles, playing with each corner of a room. He’s absolutely manic as he contorts the cameras around scenes, covering every vantage point of the players of the game. With the fantastic and immensely articulate recreations of the late 1980’s, from the art-deco style of the hotel rooms to a pretty damn faithful recreation of Checkpoint Charlie, Leitch ensures that the viewer’s eye is always trained on the action. With his characters swirling around to a very 1980’s soundtrack that reaches deep into well (hello Depeche Mode – and Siouxsie and the Banshees!) and bathed in a neon glow, Leitch’s film relies less on straight-forward shooting and actually is a tad obscure. Flashing back from the present to the past, Leitch seems obsessed with the objects surrounding his cast, enamored in their lustrous glow. Leitch traps you in a Berlin where the world is about to fall, aglow with neon sex and coveted Jack Daniels, and leaves you astounded at his knack for framing a scene. I can’t even begin to imagine the work he’ll do with Ryan Reynolds on Deadpool 2 next year.
The real problem lies with screenwriter Kurt Johnstad’s script. And no, don’t confuse Johnstad with Derek Kolstad, the crazed co-creator of the John Wick franchise. Johnstad is never going to win any type of awards, even if he did co-write 300. His dialogue pops off the screen like speech bubbles in a comic book but his ability to tell a gratifying story just has never been there. Sure, 2012’s Act of Valor was a real treat – but more for the real-life Navy SEAL’s involved with filming, not for his cookie-cutter generic script. Yet again, Johnstad’s weakness lies in the plot. An intelligence officer being dropped down in a city teeming with the darkest players in the game? Been there. Discovering the murderer of a former colleague and attempting to reclaim a list of double agents who are defecting to the West over the Berlin Wall? Alright, any film has to have a MacGuffin. But then Johnstad throws in Broughton’s actual directions for her arrival in Berlin. MI6 needs to discover the identity of Satchel, a double agent playing both sides for years who may or may not be on Broughton’s radar. Now, let’s hold the phone here for a brief moment.
What grinds my gears is that every spy thriller in recent memory seems to be about entangling an audience in deep and spellbinding plot trying to play Whack A Mole to unearth the double agent’s identity. I may as well grab three red Solo cups, place a ping pong ball under one, and play games with passers-by to see who I can fool first. When handled properly, the enigma of a double agent can make for quality entertainment. The quandary here is that Johnstad’s script attempts to paint literally everyone as an enemy of the state. From Broughton’s handlers in London, the Berlin station chief, even other agents of French and Russian origin, everyone seems slimy and sneaky. Sure, this may make great drama and tension on-screen between Theron and the characters whose paths she crosses, but this plot device has been beaten in the ground. Not only that, I even called out who the double agent was before I saw the film. Yes, Atomic Blonde is that predictable and by the numbers, and I’m pained to come to that conclusion after investing two hours into this narrative.
Luckily, there are a couple of saving graces to buoy this thriller and keep you enthralled till the credits roll. Most importantly, despite the humdrum script, the ending actually does manage a somewhat rewarding payoff. As oft times as the chess pieces continued to maneuver the board, and I was just about ready to walk out of the last several fleeting moments, the last scene actually redeems everything you’ve sat through. The moment is worthwhile, even if brief, and at least Johnstad doesn’t make Broughton to be another blunt instrument used as a pawn. And though the basic plot feels like another recycled concept from Hollywood past, the main players of Atomic Blonde actually levy the mystery long enough for you to follow along and discern who truly can be trusted in bleak Berlin. Sure, the story is a clunker, but keeping the mystery intact through to the end is a small saving grace. Plus, with the vibe that Leitch captures with the aesthetics of the production, eschewing a throwback to the days of John LeCarre and Ian Fleming, the ability to maintain interest from start to finish is easy, Tyler Bates’ rhythmic score (much in line with the synth of the late Eighties) wrapping around our characters like a cloak, saturating their inquisitive and survivalist natures.
Give credit where credit is due – without Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, Atomic Blonde would not be worth the price of admission. Her extensive drills with no fewer than eight person trainers, as well as Keanu Reeves (who mastered the physical aspects of John Wick down to a science), really do pay off on screen. Sure, Atomic Blonde is more than just 115 minutes of a British agent bashing in angry nameless goons. Broughton is quite emotional and fractured, her work as a spy and globetrotting leaving her a cold chain-smoking shell of a woman. She takes freezing cold baths with a ghastly amount of ice cubes, but dries off and uses those same cubes for her Stolichnaya, which she drinks as a way to numb her pain. She’s presumptuous, looking at every angle to step a step ahead of her rivals. Theron is the right lady to breathe life into the complexity of Broughton, even if her British accent at times is a tad suspect. However, all of her training at 87Eleven Designs (co-founded by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch) is definitely not lost. Theron throws the punches and takes them too. And in a dizzying 15-plus minute one-take sequence that cuts around a stairwell and out into the streets, Theron shows why her Lorraine Broughton could fend off anyone in her path using any object, size nondiscriminatory.
As much as the trailers hype Atomic Blonde to feel spun from the same cloth as John Wick, the truth is that there’s really one hero that Theron’s Lorraine Broughton is modeled after – and it sure ain’t John Wick. At parts I saw Timothy Dalton’s The Living Daylights flashing on the screen, the next Daniel Craig’s Bond dizzily stomping henchman arse down a stairwell. I had little doubt that Theron’s Atomic Blonde may slow in parts but didn’t expect a spy thriller that was a smidge slower in pace to build up character. Though the characters eventually redeem most of Kurt Johnstad’s feeble script, their efforts alone aren’t enough to propel Atomic Blonde to the greatness of John Wick. I wouldn’t be opposed to visiting Agent Lorraine Broughton in a sequel but the trailers made this one out to be a balls-to-the-wall action spree. Instead, I was left wanting just a bit more when the credits rolled. Atomic Blonde is worth a matinee catch on a rainy day but, hey, Charlize? Keep making these types of films. The drawbacks for this flick aren’t on you and a female John Wick is always welcome with this movieholic. Keep ’em comin’.
Reber’s Rating: B
Jerrold spent his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania ingesting far too many TV shows and movies, thus creating a stark-raving mad geek. He’s a movie aficionado, binge-watches Netflix, and is a total TV junkie. His addiction has led to an unhealthy and rabid obsession of various geek pantheons – Star Trek, Star Wars, both DC *AND* Marvel,
cult 80’s and 90’s television, Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, and, and…holy overload. He’s still waiting to run away in a 1967 Impala or a blue police box.