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Atomic Blonde

When I first saw the trailer for Atomic Blonde, I immediately thought that it looked a lot like John Wick. And I was hyped. Then I found out that the film was directed by David Leitch, who co-created Wick. And now I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand, an action film with a kickass female protagonist is always welcome. Also, it’s wonderful to see another movie with the visceral, brutal, unflinching style of action that made John Wick such a success. I’m sincerely thrilled to see the filmmakers behind that franchise getting their chance at moving onwards and upwards… but that’s just it: These are the same filmmakers. Why can’t we have more action directors trying this approach? We don’t need any more filmmakers who are trying to be Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich, but we could definitely use more filmmakers who are trying to be David Leitch or Chad Stahelski.

(Side note: In case you were wondering, this movie was based on a graphic novel called “The Coldest City”, written by Antony Johnston and published by Portland’s own Oni Press. The prospect of merging two different properties by two different creators makes it highly unlikely that this film could take place in the world of the Continental.)

Then again, this was never really about Leitch anyway. No, Atomic Blonde is an action vehicle for Charlize Theron, also a producer here. The career move makes sense: After Mad Max: Fury Road, Fate of the Furious, and even her solid villainous turn in the otherwise wretched Huntsman franchise, Theron has built quite a badass screen presence for herself. It serves the character and the movie very well, to say nothing of her uncanny ability to carry extended action sequences in heels. There are fight scenes in this movie that stretch out through lengthy unbroken takes, and Theron helps to make them look incredible from start to finish.

That said, today’s film is no brainless action thrill ride. It’s really more of an international spy thriller, which has a convoluted and complex plot by design. I’m not a hundred percent sure I could keep all the plot details straight even if I wasn’t worried about spoilers, and I’m not even entirely sure the film did a good job of it to start with. So let’s stick to the basics.

Our stage is set in 1989, during the last few days of the Cold War. The bulk of the action takes place in Berlin, which is naturally a flashpoint due to a certain Wall that might finally be coming down. Moreover, the city has long been a hub for spies of varying countries, all of whom are uncertain about the future of the Soviet Union and the balance of power. Ditto for the network of criminals and smugglers who’ve been making a profit off both sides of the wall. That isn’t even getting started on the thousands of locals who are protesting en masse to finally reunite their city. Bottom line: It’s a shitshow.

MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron’s character) is sent into this mess after her former lover/colleague (Agent James Gasciogne, played by Sam Hargrave) is killed by KGB assassin Yuri Bakhtin (Johannes Johannesson). Even worse, Gasciogne was killed while carrying The List, a microfilm (cleverly hidden in a Swiss watch) listing every active agent in the KGB. Now Bakhtin and the List have gone missing, and spies from all over the world — Broughton among the rest — have been sent to track them down.

But wait! There’s more!

The List was initially stolen by an informant code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a Stasi officer attempting to defect to the West with his wife and family. What complicates matters is that Spyglass has somehow committed the entire List to memory, which makes him every bit as valuable and dangerous as the List itself.

Last but not least is the matter of “Satchel”, a mysterious double-agent somewhere in MI6 and/or the CIA. And because Satchel is kind of a KGB operative, the List could finally reveal the identity and true agenda of Satchel.

Now for the supporting players. There’s naturally a KGB operative involved (Aleksander Bremyovich, played by Roland Moller), but there’s so much else going on in this web of deceit and betrayal that he barely registers as anything more than a paper cutout. For example, we’ve got Delfine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), who’s already been revealed as a French operative in the trailers. She’s a relative newbie and comes to be one of Broughton’s *ahem* closest allies, which naturally makes her one of the most suspect. However, her romance with Broughton helps to humanize both characters and provide us with something to emotionally invest in, which is of course crucial.

But easily Broughton’s most prominent contact is David Percival, played by James McAvoy. He’s another MI6 agent, but he’s spent a lot of time in the criminal frontiers of Berlin without an embassy nearby to check up on him. As a direct result, he’s gone off the reservation and shows little regard for anything but his own skin, never mind crown or country. Yet he’s also built up an impressive reserve of contraband products and criminal contacts, all of which are potentially useful. He’s a fascinating character — a true wild card and a tenuous ally who provides crucial support while feeding Broughton’s occupational paranoia.

We’ve also got Toby Jones and James Faulkner playing Broughton’s superiors at MI6, alongside John Goodman’s character speaking for the CIA. They primarily act as a framing device, debriefing Broughton while relaying the movie to us in flashback. It’s a clever device that allows us to watch the mystery unfold, secure in the knowledge that there will be a solution waiting for us at the end. This framing device also assures us that Broughton will in fact make it out of all this alive, but not without a whole shit-ton of nasty scars and bruises covering her whole body. We see every one of those injuries in gruesome detail at the top of the film, and then we see how she got those injuries as the fight scenes unfold.

The fight scenes are more of what you saw in the trailers, more than keeping the promise of John Wick. That said, the extended fight scenes of punches, shootouts, car chases, and so on are actually quite brief and far between. What’s interesting is in how the film focuses instead on verbal sparring and mental combat. The characters may not always be trying to punch each other out, but they are ALWAYS trying to get each other killed by way of frame jobs, red herrings, lies, traps, recording devices… you know, typical spy fare and skullduggery.

Also, while the action scenes look amazing, the film as a whole is simply beautiful. The use of color is sensational, with scenes washed out or drenched in neon as context demands. Some of the scene transitions are quite ingenious as well. Then we have the wonderful sound design, from its impeccable use of the Wilhelm Scream to the sensual sound of ice cubes clinking. Last but not least is the soundtrack, loaded with ’80s new wave favorites and covers in a way that sounds wickedly cool. It all adds up to a neatly stylish film that’s a blast to sit through.

Also, for those of you who care, we do get some fleeting bits of brief nudity from Theron, Boutella, and a couple of female extras. There’s also a moment when the filmmakers went very far out of their way, resorting to forcibly contrived measures so there wouldn’t be a full-frontal shot of McAvoy. This double-standard when it comes to onscreen nudity, seriously.

Atomic Blonde can often get lost in its own plot, but the whole film is so confident and beautifully crafted, with such a powerfully talented cast, that suspension of disbelief is more than strong enough to fill in the gaps. It also helps that there’s some solid verbal interplay, the action scenes are positively heart-pounding, and the film as a whole looks amazing.

This one absolutely gets a recommendation. Go see it.

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