Monday, August 21, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde was Written by Kurt Johnstad and directed by Lavid Leitch.

Johnstad previously wrote True Vengeance, 300, Act Of Valor and 300: Rise Of An Empire. Leitch has worked primarily as a stuntman in dozens of films, and acted in a few. He co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelsi, but for some reason got no onscreen credit. He also directed No Good Deed.

The film is based on a graphic novel I've never heard of called The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.

Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy-fest, hampered by an overly convoluted plot filled with agents constantly double and even triple crossing one another. After a while you'll realize there's no point in trying to figure out who's on which side or what's going on, as it ultimately doesn't matter. The entire plot exists solely as 
a framework on which to hang a series of impressive fight scenes. 

That said, director Leitch definitely knows his way around a good action setpiece. The action is all well filmed and choreographed, and very reminiscent of the fight scenes in John Wick (which of course shouldn't be a surprise, as he co-directed that film). Best of all, at no time is any annoying Shakey-Cam used to disguise the fact that the actors don't know how to throw a punch, which is a miracle in this day and age.

Unfortunately this focus on action and fight scenes means characterization takes a big hit. There are zero emotional stakes in the film, and no one for the audience to care about. Say what you will about the John Wick films, but at least there the title character had a bit of depth to him, and we know he loved his late wife and his pet dog. In Atomic Blonde we absolutely nothing about Charlize Theron's Lorraine emotionless automaton of a character, and know nothing more about her at the end of the film than we did at the beginning. The only thing we ever find out about her is her penchant for bathing in ice water, apparently to match her chilly, frigid exterior.

So far the film's grossed around $73 million worldwide ($47 million in the States, and $26 million overseas) against its slim $30 million budget. Since films generally need to make back twice their production budget to break even, Atomic Blonde could be considered a very slight financial hit.


The Plot:
It's needlessly convoluted, so I'll try to make some sense of it.

We start out in East Berlin in November, 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. MI6 agent James Gasciogne runs through the streets, chased by a car. The car violently slams into him and KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin exits. Bakhtin shoots Gasciogne in the head, takes his large, conspicuous watch (Plot Point!) and tosses the body into the river. Honestly there's really no point to this scene other than to establish the existence of the watch.

Gasciogne was searching for The List— a top secret document containing the names of every undercover agent operating in Europe. MI6 and the CIA are both anxious to recover The List, as it could jeopardize national security if it falls into enemy hands. Unfortunately Gasciogne was betrayed by an agent named Satchel.

Sometime later, British MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is debriefed (ouch!) by her superior Eric Gray (played by Toby Jones) and CIA agent Kurzfeld (played by John Goodman). Gray sent Lorraine to Berlin to recover The List, and demands to know what happened. She says she doesn't know the whereabouts of The List, and that the mission was a complete failure.

Lorraine tells the story of happened on her mission, as we flash back to ten days earlier. Yep, that's right— this is a dreaded Flashback Movie. Whatever happens to Lorraine from this point on, we know she survives because we've already seen her alive in the future. How I loathe this kind of film. But I digress. MI6 sends Lorraine to Berlin to kill the treacherous Satchel and recover The List. She's ordered to meet with her contact, David Percival (played by James McAvoy).

We catch up with Percival in a bar, as he meets with a Stasi officer who's code-named Spyglass (played by Eddie Marsan). Spyglass has memorized The List (?) and will give the info to Percival if he helps him defect to the West. Unfortunately KGB arms dealer Bremovych is looking for Spyglass, brutally killing anyone who gets in his way. Are you getting all this?

Lorraine arrives in East Berlin and is met by two men who claim they're taking her to meet Percival. Fortunately for her she realizes the men are Bremovytch's agents, and kills them in a cool action setpiece. She then meets Percival, who was following her car. He agrees to help her find The List.

Lorraine goes to Gasciogne's apartment to look for clues. Seems that Lorraine was romantically involved with Gasciogne before he was killed. She sees a photo of him with Percival. Just then the East German police arrive, and once again, Lorraine dispatches them in an impressive action setpiece. She suspects Percival set her up, since he's the only person who knew she'd be in the apartment.

She then goes to a bar, where she's approached by a French agent named Delphine (played by Sofia Boutella). They go back to Delphine's place and Lorraine shoves her against the wall, suspicious of her intent. She eventually decides Delphine's not a threat, and the two of them roll around in bed for a while in order to wake up the males in the audience.

Bakhtin approaches Percival, who kills him with an ice pick (!). He takes Gasciogne's watch from Bakhtin's wrist and puts it on. Again with the watch!

Spyglass then asks Lorraine for her help to get over the Wall into West Berlin. For some reason, Percival agrees to help. They set up an elaborate escape plan, but then Spyglass throws a monkey wrench into it when he reveals his wife and child are coming along too. Lorraine and Percival split up the family, sending the missus and child one way, while attempting to sneak Spyglass out during a large protest march.

The plan works at first, until suddenly Percival shoots Spyglass in the gut (?). Lorraine hurries him into a building, where they're attacked by many KGB agents. Lorraine manages to kill them all in a gloriously bloody and impressive ten minute long fight sequence that's designed to look like one continuous shot.

Lorraine manages to get Spyglass out of the building and into a car, and of course a chase ensues. Suddenly another car slams into hers, knocking it into the river. She manages to escape, but Spyglass' seatbelt is stuck and he drowns. Welp, so much for that subplot, I guess!

Back in her apartment, Delphine develops photos she secretly took, and comes to the conclusion that Percival is actually Satchel (he's not). Just then he conveniently breaks into her apartment and for some reason strangles her. Lorraine arrives later and finds Delphine's body.

We then see Percival burning all his records as he prepares to flee his apartment. Lorraine confronts him, says she knows he's Satchel (he's not) and shoots him in the head. She then takes his watch, which we see secretly contains The List.

Flash forward to the debriefing, as Lorraine wraps up her story. She gives Delphine's photos to Gray, which prove that Percival was the traitor Satchel (he wasn't). Gray asks if Lorraine has The List, but she says no— it apparently died with Spyglass. Gray closes the case.

Sometime later, Lorraine is in Paris. She meets with Bremovych, presumably to give him The List. At the last second she pulls a gun out of an ice bucket (?) and kills Bremovych, paying him back for murdering Gasciogne.

Lorraine then joins Kurzfeld on a plane headed for the States. She gives him The List, revealing she's really an American, and was Satchel all along. Um... surprise, I guess?

• Honestly I can't think of much to say about this film. It was mildly entertaining, it took up 115 minutes of my time, and it began fading from my memory by the time I walked back to my car.

Atomic Blonde's storyline is so convoluted it makes it hard to spot any plot holes. For example, I still have absolutely no idea what Percival's plan was, or why he did any of the things he did in the film. 

Who was he working for? Was he an enemy agent, or out for himself? Was he evil or just opportunistic? Your guess is as good as mine. I'd need to see the film again to figure it out, and that ain't happening. I was too busy trying to keep up with the plot to pay attention to character motives. 

Maybe that was the idea here? Confuse the audience so they don't realize how hollow the film is?

• The McGuffin that everyone's trying to get their hands on in the film is a list of every MI6 and CIA spy working undercover in Europe. Ugh, THIS plot again?

They used this same "We've Got To Recover The Undercover Spy List" trope in the first Mission: Impossible movie, as well as in Skyfall. It's fast becoming the "One Last Mission Before I Retire From My Life Of Crime" plot of heist movies, or the "Villain Feels He's Been Wronged By The Hero And Seeks Revenge" storyline of virtually every comic book films.

• Not necessarily a nitpick, but an observation: In 2008's Wanted (which oddly enough also starred James MacAvoy), wounded agents took baths in hot wax to help them heal faster. 

Here Lorraine regularly bathes in tubs filled with ice water, presumably to help heal her bruises quicker. So which is it, Hollywood? What heals best, hot wax or ice?

• The highlight of the entire film is unquestionably the amazing ten minute fight scene in the third act, in which Lorraine battles several enemy agents inside an abandoned apartment building. 

The scene appears to be one long, continuous take, but of course that's not true. In reality it was created from forty separate shots, stitched together with CGI (or sometimes a strategically placed pole or body) to look like a single scene. It's all done so smoothly though that it takes you a while to realize it's all one seemingly unbroken shot.

This fight scene is absolutely brutal, as none of Lorraine's male opponents hold back against her. It's somewhat shocking at first to see a lumbering thug whaling the tar out of Charlize Theron, but fortunately she's such a badass that she's able to dish out equal punishment.

The best part of the fight is its realism. After several minutes of constant punching, stabbing and shooting, Lorraine and her opponents are so battered they actually stop a few times, backing away from one another panting until they get their second wind. I can't remember the last time I saw anyone do that in a movie!

It's almost like the movie exists just so they could hang this epic fight scene on it. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to find out they started with the fight first, and then wrote the plot around it.

• Eddie Marsan plays Spyglass, the agent trying to defect to West Berlin. Every time I see Marsan, I can't help but feel he looks like the unholy and ill-advised offspring of Howard Sprague and Floyd The Barber.

• Other than the single-shot fight scene, the best thing by far about Atomic Blonde is its soundtrack. Every song in the film made me smile, as I was a big fan of 1980s synth pop back in the day. Hey, don't judge me! It was a different time!

Here's just a few of the songs used in the film. I'd be tempted to buy the soundtrack CD, if that was something people still did:

Blue Monday '88, performed by New Order
Cat People (Putting Out Fire), performed by David Bowie
Fight The Power, performed by Public Enemy
Major Tom, performed by Peter Schilling
99 Luftballonsperformed by Nena
Father Figureperformed by George Michael
Der Kommissarperformed by After The Fire
London Callingperformed by The Clash
Cities In Dustperformed by Siouxsie and the Banshees
The Politics Of Dancingperformed by Re-Flex 
Voices Carry, performed by Til Tuesday
Stigmata, performed by Marilyn Manson
Behind the Wheel, performed by Depeche Mode
I Ran (So Far Away), performed by A Flock of Seagulls
Under Pressure, performed by Queen and David Bowie

Atomic Blonde is a spy thriller filled with impressively choreographed John Wick-esque fight scenes. Unfortunately, fight scenes do not a movie make. There's zero characterization, and the plot is so needlessly convoluted it's honestly not worth the effort to try and unravel it. It's got a great soundtrack though! I give it a middling C+.

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