Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

An incredible piece of work, taking best bits from Leitch's finest movies and turning them into something fun, fresh, and brutal.

David Leitch’s cinematic rendition of graphic novel The Coldest City holds true to its roots in genre, styling & characterisation, creating an astounding & brutally fresh view on the spy genre, however often fails to keep its audiences gripped, and falls short of its overarching style.

Set in 1989 Berlin, international tensions are high, as British Intelligence fights for The List, a list of every active agent in the Soviet Union. Having been sent by MI6 to retrieve The List and assassinate a mysterious loose-lipped double-agent, Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) fights her way through Berlin, uncovering secrets and corruption, she can trust no-one.

Sounds familiar right? Atomic Blonde has an underlying plot structure which screams nothing new to a viewer, the Berlin Wall, international espionage, secrets & fight scenes. However, as the film’s opening credits show, this is not that story. Leitch’s graphic and brutal spy flick brings audiences the female John Wick, and one of the best action, adrenaline-fuelled stories of the year, and on a surprisingly low-budget.

The 2017 feature opens with a familiar chase scene often seen in the genre, but with something different. The over-the-shoulder continuous shots contrast its low-angle follows; which produces a fresh feel on the scene type to grasp its audience, while its near-monochromatic base is highlighted by harsh, coloured lights. Holding similarity to 2005’s Sin City – another graphic novel adaptation – showing Leitch’s honour to Johnston’s works. Leitch goes on to use this opportunity to emphasise the movie’s brutality, stylised sound-effects are utilised to promote the force of impact in cars, and gunshots to highlight the jolts character narrative, bringing out the ferocity we’ve seen in John Wick. Within the opening five minutes, the audience is gripped, and ready for a brutal, artistic roller-coaster.

Going on to introduce our hero, Theron nails the movement, mannerisms and all-round bad-assery of Broughton’s character. Taking no shy from nudity, DOP Jonathan Sela uses tracking close-ups to show us each movement Theron creates, from flexing back muscles to finger-tip grips. The range of shots allows audiences to feel they know Broughton, contrasting her inverted & secretive attitudes. Theron can only be commended for her outstanding performance, the viewer can really see how each movement has been thought-out, and placed strategically into the scene, perfectly complemented by Sela’s range of short-lived close-ups and medium shots of on-screen characters. Such a pairing styling continues throughout the length of the movie, however the clear focus on technical aspects often cause audiences to overlook some key narrative points, thereby resulting in the audience having to take a step back to catch up on characters & their developments. To Leitch’s credit, this is acknowledged and audiences are greeted with breaks in overdone camera work, however these scenes – usually plot progressing conversations – fall victim to jump-cuts and static cameras which noticeably contrasts the overall styling of the production, feeling like these segments were designed by someone else completely. This lack of technicality causes audiences to fall bored, therefore losing focus of more elements in the narrative. Some creative transitions here would definitely aid the flow of the story, especially as the oddly placed jump cuts often transition to whole new environments, causing overly harsh contrasts in scene lighting; appearing largely unaesthetic, and unclean to the audience; breaking the otherwise astounding style of the movie.

The fight scenes are a force to be reckoned with, taking the Lubezkian continuous shot styling we saw used by Leitch within John Wick to a whole new level. The audience can feel each punch, each impact – through stunning camera work and sound design, we see the Wick style gunfights accompanied by the melee combat from V for Vendetta to create new, fresh, and brutal scenes. Some of the new elements we see add a sense of naturalism to the movie which allows us to relate to the character further, which is achieved through having Broughton falter, lacking stamina, and falling as she fights struggling to maintain her energy as she breaks bones and takes heavy beatings; as one would when fighting off ten trained KGB agents. This naturalism in such scenes further aids to the vicious fights, as we see characters struggle for their lives, as fists and bullets fly.

The production continues to recognise the importance of character in story-telling, resulting in clear definition of where each character stands, through the use of the Berkovian burden. By allowing the audience to see each character’s burden, what their faults are, we become more attached to them as characters – viewing their actions as people rather than characters on screen, and this appears for each character introduced, be they a minor or major role. This technique partnered with some impressive performances from co-stars James McAvoy and Sofia Boutelle allows viewers to know, and understand each character and by proxy their role in Broughton’s story. The audience holds a level of suspicion around each character, producing an idea of the cautious trust no-one mindset of the spy world so heavily emphasised throughout the duration of the film. However, McAvoy’s performance quickly becomes dry, with his character failing to overly develop, and remain quite similar to his other characters. However, his conclusive “I Love Berlin” monologue does make up for a portion of this. Arguably, Theron also stands on this line, though we see her character develop, her portrayal of Broughton remains largely the same – resulting in audiences losing the connection we hold with her character, though the movie’s ‘surprise’ ending may cater to explain this as intentional.

Ultimately, something which makes the film what it is, is Tyler Bates’ incredible soundtrack of 80s power anthems and rock tracks. Largely featuring German & American music from the era, the placement of each song feels just right, and allows audiences to rock along as Theron punches out some teeth or crashes some cars. There’s something extremely pleasing about Nena’s 99 Luftballoons being partnered with a direct slam to the head with a skateboard. From Queen to The Clash, the soundtrack adds an extra level of fun to the feature, in a similar styling to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, released earlier this year. However, unlike Baby Driver, Atomic Blonde fails to match music beats to on-screen action; something which I felt was missing here after seeing it done so well recently.

Overall, Atomic Blonde left me wanting more – with some great twists and turns in plot, and wonderfully aesthetic cinematography; I highly recommend viewing the movie. Though my few complaints on the feature stand, and their lacking would make the movie significantly more enjoyable.

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