There’s nothing more annoying than a try-hard.
The guy who never goes anywhere without headphones and greets passerby not with a “howdy” or “hello” but the album he’s listening to and why it’s too unique for your pedestrian tastes. The poor bastard that tries to prove they’re tough not by withstanding duress, but trying to start fights in hopes they might earn the adjective by default. Someone never content or comfortable to just be. Someone always forcing and toiling and sweating until everyone knows just how cool they are.
I’ve never seen a movie try so hard to be cool as Atomic Blonde.
On paper, I should’ve loved it. John Wick action, courtesy of one of the original’s co-directors, and 80’s spy pulp, the kind that fantasizes the Cold War never ended; it just got colder. Two things I’ll consume with irresponsible abandon.
Yet Atomic Blonde manages to be less than the some of its promising parts.
The movie opens in the then-recent past of 1980s Berlin, before the wall fell. A secret agent runs for his life until a Russian counterpart stops him and cuts it short, all for a tantalizingly ambiguous list. Then it jumps to the then-present, England after the fall, with Charlize Theron’s MI6 agent looking like raw meat. She’s called in to answer for exactly what happened on her mission to Berlin for the list. The movie takes the form of her recorded testimony of the last few days, jumping between her efforts in Germany and her skeptical account of them after the fact.
Here’s a good test of any movie that tells its story out of sequence. If you were to straighten everything out and tell it chronologically, is it suddenly a pretty ordinary story? Then the clever editing is just that – a trick.
Atomic Blonde is just another spy story about an organization on the edge of complete collapse because a list of all active operatives is within reach of the enemy. That doesn’t necessarily take any points away from it besides originality, but plenty of watchable if not wonderful espionage romps have been built on that foundation. Mission: Impossible and Skyfall, for a start. But Atomic Blonde only adds its unnecessarily convoluted structure to the formula and ends up spoiling it.
The movie’s first hour moves slower than you might expect from the trailers. Theron’s character, Lorraine Broughton, sneaks around Berlin, sticking out like a sore thumb in the colorless waste of its streets and fitting right in at clubs lit exclusively in midnight blue and brake-light red. It does Atomic Blonde no favors that it gets better as it goes, but this quieter front nine really shows the seams that never quite go away.
Almost every scene transition is accompanied by a cool 80s song. I don’t mean that cool in a demeaning way; I love 80s songs. Loved most of the inclusions in Atomic Blonde. But they aren’t used to really set a tone – the movie’s more glum than it thinks it is – or any sort of thematic relevance. They’re used to remind you that it’s the 80s and the filmmakers have cool taste in 80s music. The only song that’s used to anything resembling a memorable effect is George Michael’s “Father Figure,” but it’s just played loud over an otherwise unrelated action sequence. By the end, I’d shake my head as soon as I heard the opening tones of the next synth-driven 80s standard. I like these songs and Atomic Blonde made me tired of these songs. Frankly, the movie uses music the same way Adam Sandler movies do – it’s there to remind you of good feelings you have about a song while giving the impression that the movie shares its personality and also gives you those good feelings. But in a year of action movies that have used classic rock in an emotionally resonant way – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – and made it an entire, unconscious character – Baby Driver – Atomic Blonde embarrasses itself.
When the music isn’t distracting, the visuals sure do. I’m all for neon and candy-colored grit, but I don’t buy it in a West German hotel room or West German clubs, for that matter. Maybe I’m wrong, and if I am, I’m genuinely curious about the ins and outs of Cold War nightlife if anyone would like to clue me in. But it all feels like empty style. The movie looks perfectly competent, if a bit drab when it walks the streets, so the overcooked interiors feel like a film student trying to pad their reel.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about one-take action sequences. It does me no pleasure to do so. I’m not opposed to the concept, but they’ve become a symbol of hollow technicality. Sure. It’s impressive to string together an entire fight scene without ever cutting away (or hiding the edits, at least). It’s also easier than ever before to pull it off. So now almost every action movie to come down the pike features a one-take action sequence tailor-made to wow audiences by its very existence, whether or not it’s necessary or satisfying. Like gratuitously overlit shots in implausibly stylized locations, one-take action sequences have become another hallmark of misguided film students. Wouldn’t it be so cool, they think, without ever asking if it makes sense for that action sequence to roll along uncut. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not easy to thematically justify something like that or even pull it off. So good on whoever can make it work. But Atomic Blonde provides a crash-course in all the less-lofty, practical reasons why most one-takes are more about ego than excitement.
Atomic Blonde‘s showstopper comes late in the game and lasts what felt like a solid fifteen minutes. Broughton ushers a high-value target into an apartment building she knows is occupied by a team of assassins who want the target dead. So she leaves him on the ground floor, unarmed and unprotected, and charges up to their hiding spot. Gunfire. Punching. Falling down flights of stairs. Almost too much stabbing. At first it’s compelling, spanning two separate floors of the complex. But then it keeps going. Down to another floor, another apartment. One pesky henchman just won’t die. Broughton throws him around. He throws her around. At one point, they’re both clearly exhausted. Then she defeats him. Alright, a little overlong for the sake of watching Broughton run out of steam. But no. It’s still going. It keeps going into a car chase, seen entirely from inside a car. It keeps going until the movie cuts away to a seemingly random shot of destruction.
None of it needed to be one-take. Only the first few minutes were energized by the lack of cuts. But then the camerawork started to get flat. Not bad, necessarily, but constricted by the limitations of the camera operator having to run with the action. Then the air starts to go out of it. I exhaled. They held the tension too long by the time they stretched it into a third fight. My eyes glazed at one point. I needed a cut. A refreshing change of perspective, to better sell the desperation, exhaustion. But no. Let me tell you, probably the least exciting place to watch a car chase is inside a car. But they had to keep that one-take rolling. And they couldn’t even stick the landing. No punchline to remind you how impressive that just was. Just a stunt car hitting prop cars. The action suffered for being one long take, which is a lesson for aspiring filmmakers to take to heart, but not a lesson Atomic Blonde likely wanted to teach.
That’s to say nothing of the occasionally halting fight choreography, where it seems like someone missed a cue or the punches are flying too slow. There’s no laidback, seemingly spontaneous violence like in its forebears, John Wick and its sequel. Too much of what we see in the trailers is bookended with stilted chases and stunts we’ve seen before.
When it isn’t aggressively rocking out or showing off its footwork, Atomic Blonde leans on spy cliches so heavily it crushes them. Certain characters talk exclusively in espionage-ese, with even ordinary conversations appearing to contain volumes of coded meaning. Problem is, half the time we don’t know what the hell the codes are. It can be assumed because of how simple the plot is at its core – Broughton is cold, out for revenge, and won’t be trusting anyone again – but it grates. The uneasy romance, another hallmark of the genre, is represented here by Sofia Boutella, who falls for Broughton straight away. It’d be refreshing to see a bisexual love story in any mainstream movie, but that sentiment is undercut immediately by a gratuitous sex scene shot like a Duran Duran music video.
If anything, the reason to see Atomic Blonde is the cast. Charlize Theron proves again that she’s an undisputed action hero who’s game for anything. Online wishful thinking has her cast as the first female James Bond and this movie makes me wish it were closer in-line with a Bond adventure for her sake. James McAvoy is just fun to watch as the slightly unhinged agent covering Berlin. Sofia Boutella is actually given something to do, a refreshing change of pace from The Mummy. John Goodman is John Goodman.
There are two kinds of twists in fiction – the kind that make you go “Ahhhh” and the kind that make you go “What?” In the closing minutes of Atomic Blonde, when the flopsweat has all dried and there aren’t many more 80s songs to jam in, twists start piling up like someone forgot the rest of the movie had no plot.
And if nothing else, they’re all perfectly fitting for a movie this desperate to prove that it’s exciting and edgy and, most of all, cool.