tv + film by Philbert Dy

‘Atomic Blonde’ Gets the Action Right, but the Story Doesn’t Work

An overstuffed plot and cuts get in the way of the fun

NBHD movie 2-2 ticketsAtomic Blonde takes place in 1989, just days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is within that tense context that MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent into Berlin to recover a list of undercover agents that was stolen off a murdered British spy. She is to work with Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who soon proves to be a rather unreliable ally. Unable to really trust anyone in this dangerous time and place, Broughton is left with little other than her elite skills as a spy and a fighter to complete her seemingly impossible mission.Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 12.44.11 PMAs a spy movie, Atomic Blonde is a mess. It’s actually a little hard to follow the trail of betrayal and reversals, the film just not interested enough in the characters to make all that stuff really matter. It just makes it clear from the start that nobody is being honest about who they are, what they know, and what they want. There doesn’t seem to be much of a governing logic to why the characters do what they do. The film just takes for granted that they are spies, and that deceit comes naturally to them. And that might even be true, but that attitude makes the plot an uninteresting pile of nothing.Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 12.43.47 PMBut the movie is also an action movie. And while it might be challenging to try and figure out what it is the characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene, there is an immediacy to the action that cuts through all the nonsense. The film is directed by David Leitch, co-director of the first John Wick movie. That pedigree is evident in this movie, as it showcases much of the same action movie chops. But Broughton isn’t quite Wick, the character’s brutality more grounded, and more intense. The action sequences in John Wick could feel like a fantasy. The stuff in here is much too nasty to be a fantasy.Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 12.46.14 PMThat differentiation in aesthetic makes the film all the more remarkable, especially as it heads into its showcase sequence: a seven-and-a-half-minute brawl/gunfight through an apartment complex that plays out like one long take. It is a bravura sequence marred only by a cut in the local version that breaks up the rhythm of the scene. The choreography, camerawork, and acting in this scene is so breathtaking that it might sell the film all on its own, even taking into account the weaknesses of the plot. Shame about that cut, though.Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 12.47.36 PMThe film is also able to mitigate its narrative failings with an excess of style. The production design is distinctive and memorable. The bold lensing combines with a soundtrack of 80s hits to evoke the spirit of the time. And at the heart of it is Charlize Theron, who is thoroughly credible as the kickass main character. She really throws herself into those fight scenes, and what she lacks in smoothness, she makes up for in sheer brutal intent. There is never a single moment in one of those action sequences where it feels like the character’s resolve is wavering, and that goes a long way in selling the threat of her abilities.Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 12.48.15 PMAtomic Blonde would be worth recommending for its action sequences alone, which really are some of the best that have been produced in the last few years. But one has to acknowledge how much the plot gets in the way of the fun. If we had learned anything from John Wick, it’s that action might work best in the absence of complexity. And then there’s the fact that the local version has cuts, so what people are going to see in our theaters isn’t going to be quite the experience that the filmmakers intended. That just makes it much more difficult to say that this film is worth going out for. We deserve better than that.

Philbert Dy
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.
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