The Stylish "Atomic Blonde" Never Comes Together, Is Maddeningly Inscrutable
Atomic Blonde is one of those films that I wish I loved but I just don't. It's too damn hard to follow, it's too wrapped up in its own cleverness, it's too damn long, and the sheer amount of beyond-obvious needle-drops put the excessive Suicide Squad to shame. Within this muck, there are gaudy, violent, and sexy scenes. But I'd rather re-watch them in isolation than sit through this whole thing again.
Based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde begs for a pulpy, lean and mean adaptation; in and out in 90 minutes, here for a good time not a long time, etc.
Instead, for some reason, it's a sometimes-serious-sometimes-not thriller that too often is preoccupied with details; details that are never entirely clear or are never dramatised in such a way as to be engaging (Another reason it's un-engaging is because Atomic Blonde, considering all its tough guy posturing and flippancy, actively resists sincere emotional engagement.). Basically when such-and-such betrays whoever-the-hell and whatshername is not who she seems, it's almost impossible to comprehend, let alone care. But the language of the film – the dramatic music, the subdued seriousness – is communicating “Care now”. It's a collision of absurdly different intentions, which manifests itself on the screen as a fundamentally compromised and dreary film.
To be sure, its ambience is undeniably aesthetically appealing, composed of broad, deliciously ostentatious neon-soaked strokes. But that style finds a jelly-boned partner in an incoherent story; during its most comprehensible, it's aggressively been-there-done-that.
Atomic Blonde begins in a straightforward enough fashion and then proceeds to tie itself in knots. Set in the closing days of the Cold War, Lorraine (Charlize Theron, lethal, stoic, deserving of much better), a top-shelf MI6 agent, is dispatched to East Berlin to retrieve an important dossier that lists vital undercover agents. Upon her arrival she meets fellow agent Percival (James Mcavoy, electrifying, feral, also deserves better). She also meets an Algerian agent who's way in over her head (Sofia Boutella, once more, with feeling: deserves better).
So rah, rah, rah and blah happens until, shockingly, one of the most exciting movie scenes of 2017 unfolded: Charlize Theron's stoic spy unleashing hell, maiming and murdering any assassin suicidal enough to get in the way of her mission. Which is protecting this old guy for reasons I don't recall.
The sequence plays out in real-time, and is made to look like one fluid shot as the camera lurches and staggers behind her in a valiant effort to clearly capture spectacular speed and ferocity. Intellectually I knew the scene had to be choreographed within an inch of its life, but the desperation and fear was palpable. Blonde hair matted with dry blood and grit, and panting heavily, near total unconsciousness, she's tangling with the last assassin who offhandedly called her a bitch. She gets the upper-hand, finally sticking a blade through the roof of his mouth. She angrily spits back – betraying the first hint of humanity – “Am I a bitch now?!”.
Stakes. Character. Exciting action. Boom. For a few minutes, one of the guys who directed John Wick, David Leitch, took full command of his movie. It was beautiful if brief, and the only thing about Atomic Blonde worth remembering.