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Atomic Blonde

Our Lady of the Swaddledog, Academy Award winner Charlize Theron, stars in her first post-Furiosa ass-kicking movie, and holy shit it’s from JOHN WICK co-director David Leitch and the 87Eleven action team. ATOMIC BLONDE, based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City, is a twisty Cold War spy thriller set in Berlin right before the wall came down. Theron plays Elaine Broughton, a beaten and bruised MI6 agent recounting a disastrous mission to obtain “The List,” a document listing all the spies active in the Soviet Union (similar to the NOC List in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), and to kill whoever stole it.

Broughton has the qualities we look for in a larger-than-life movie spy: three steps ahead, improvisational when necessary, hyper-fashionable, sexy. When less experienced French agent Delphine Lasalle (THE MUMMY herself, Sofia Boutella) follows her, Broughton immediately makes her and beds her. The movie could get away with treating this like a conquest, but instead they start helping each other – spies with benefits – and you get to like Delphine.

The same cannot be said for David Percival (James McAvoy, THE POOL), the goofy, shifty contact who shows her around but might be the Russian double agent known as Satchel.

The ’80s setting is important to the style and vibe of the movie. The music of that decade is used both as soundtrack and as a symbol of rebellion and/or western influence. As one song on the soundtrack puts it, it’s “the politics of dancing, the politics of feeling good.” Percival meets a guy (Eddie Marsan, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED) at some kind of outdoor dance party and gets some innocent youths swept up in this. Some of them are punks, some of them breakdance, some ride skateboards. They play “Fight the Power” at their party (which checks out – the single was released with DO THE RIGHT THING that summer). This sort of melting pot of unrelated youth subcultures might seem silly in America, but I like it for this story because they’re latching onto whatever forms of expression and rebellion are available. And the authorities who come down on them are offended by all of it, even “99 Luftballons,” so it works.

(I don’t think people used those little skateboards anymore in 1989, though. Maybe Berlin was different.)

There are other German language songs, like “Major Tom (Völlig Losgelöst)” by Peter Schilling, and “Der Kommissar” by After the Fire. It’s a good selection of moody European pop: David Bowie’s theme for CAT PEOPLE, “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie and the Banshees, “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls. Almost all of these are from the early ’80s, with Depeche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel” and George Michael’s “Father Figure,” both from ’87, the most current songs besides “Fight the Power” and “Personal Jesus,” which was actually 1990.

That’s for the best, because the actual prevailing music of the time doesn’t hold up as well. The #1 single in Germany and all of Europe during the week this movie takes place was “Lambada.”

In fact, if they used the music that was popular in the time and place, this would be the soundtrack:

(SPOILER: Includes Milli Vanilli, Neneh Cherry, Technotronic, and David Hasselhoff!)

But that’s how it is. We choose to remember the culture of an era in a selective, exaggerated way. A movie like ATOMIC BLONDE can filter out the cheesy parts of ’80s music and zero in on the moody, synth-heavy tunes that match its idea of neon-lit cool. It can emulate the cinematic world of Michael Mann instead of, like, LOOK WHO’S TALKING or whatever. It can remove the fat and leave Pure ’80s Extract. And that’s very appropriate for this somewhat heightened version of a spy tale, where the sneaking and tricking sometimes erupts into long, dirty fights and chases of the type where at the end you stop holding your breath and feel like maybe you should be applauding.

Broughton likes ice in her Stoli, but also in her bath tub, because Jesus does she get knocked around in this movie. Her body takes a John McClane level of punishment. She keeps going, but you can tell every bone and muscle aches.

There’s alot of intrigue to lay out here, it’s not wall-to-wall action, more cloak than dagger. But it’s a hell of a dagger. During training, Leitch was reportedly so impressed with Theron’s abilities and discipline that he decided to go more elaborate with the action sequences. Due to her dancing background, movie experience and hard training she could do 20 consecutive moves in one take. There’s a moment where she’s about to fight two cops and she pulls a mask up over her nose, and I thought “here comes the stunt double.” And then she proceeds to fight them and pull the mask back down in the same shot.

You guys know who Daniel Bernhardt is, right? He’s a Swiss martial artist and model who tried to follow the Van Damme path in the ’90s, starring in the BLOODSPORT sequels and Sheldon Lettich’s PERFECT TARGET. He’s not really a marquee name anymore, so I’ve been excited to start noticing him in significant henchman roles: an agent in THE MATRIX RELOADED, a guy that fights Statham in PARKER, “Kirill” in JOHN WICK, “Bone Breaker” in LOGAN. Here he’s the next-to-last actor credited and just called “Soldier,” but he’s one of the biggest opponents, having two memorable brawls with Broughton and coming back at her like a Terminator. If you’ve seen it and don’t know who I’m talking about, he’s the blond guy she fights in the movie theater, and gives a unique face injury. A major role. Good for him.

Leitch only got onto my radar when he co-directed (uncredited) JOHN WICK. But he’s been around since the ’90s as a stuntman, including doubling Brad Pitt several times. Lately he and Chad Stahelski have also been a go-to second unit/stunt coordinating team, including for NINJA TURTLES 1 & 2 and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Leitch is credited only for second unit on JOHN WICK CHAPTER 2 because he left to do ATOMIC BLONDE solo. Next he’ll do DEADPOOL 2 while Stahelski might do a remake of HIGHLANDER.

This script is by Kurt Johnstad, writer of 300, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE and ACT OF VALOR. Coincidentally, Leitch was a stuntman on 300.

I think it’s interesting that these two stunt guys are directing such slick looking movies. Pretty different from Hal Needham. There’s a scene where she’s in her hotel room and it’s dark and there’s red light shining on her from one side and blue from the other side and her hair looks white. It reminds me of a cool poster for an A24 movie. I’m not sure if this is the scene I’m thinking of:

because when I was looking for stills I realized that there are other scenes with a similar color scheme:

Of course, credit for this style could belong to director of photography Jonathan Sela, who shot both this and the first JOHN WICK (plus TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT). Leitch first worked with him as second unit director/stunt coordinator for BRADLEY COOPER’S MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN! Those are all really nice looking movies, actually.

Stunt coordinator/second unit director on this is Sam Hargrave, who was co-fight coordinator for BLOOD & BONE. He also plays her friend who gets killed in the opening. I’m pretty sure the credits listed several choreographers, but IMDb just has Greg Rementer, Vin Diesel’s stunt double from xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE, and Jon Valera (choreographer of MAN OF TAI CHI) as fight coordinator.

I get why people are comparing this to JOHN WICK and being disappointed. They both have great action, but they’re in different genres. WICK is all based around a very elegant revenge premise. ATOMIC is kind of the opposite: a type of spy thriller meant to be stuffed with twists and turns and tricks, hard to keep up with by design. I prefer the first type of movie, but ATOMIC is a unique version of the second.

Admittedly, people who are more into the second type might be harder on it than me. My friend Matt Lynch told me he liked the action but not “the TINKER TAILOR stuff.” That’s kinda funny because I’m a guy who respects TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY more than enjoys it. I can see that it’s masterfully acted and designed and composed and it respects its audience’s intelligence, but maybe it overestimates mine, because it’s so subtle in a way where you miss one or two subtle things and you’re fucked, you will never catch up. I understand why my friends all worshipped it at the time, but I’d talk to them about what I thought it was about and what happened and apparently I was way off. (I don’t seem to have written a review.)

So my point is that the version of that that’s maybe not as smart but does have an amazing 8-minute uninterrupted fight and chase like THE RAID meets CHILDREN OF MEN is the one I prefer.

I keep coming back to this: did you ever think you’d see an Academy Award winner for best actress fighting the star of BLOODSPORT 2-4 in front of Tarkovsky’s STALKER on the screen at the Kino International? I mean sure we all considered it as something that could possibly happen some day, but did we think we’d get it this year? I didn’t.

But seriously folks – that scene is beautiful just as an exceedingly unlikely confluence of elements, but you could also ascribe meaning to it. Here we have an Acclaimed Hollywood Superstar in a long battle with a mostly forgotten star of obscure b-movies. His status is elevated by her project and her presence, but she’s really in his territory more than the other way around – martial arts, stunts, the part somebody might fast forward to if they didn’t care about the plot. And neither of them will ever reach the cultural stature of the Russian art film they’ve cut through and had projected onto them. A battle royale of class and crass, art and exploitation, contemplation and asskicking, pop and academia. Asskicking comes out the clear winner, but it’s made better by its opponents.

Thank you, ATOMIC BLONDE.

SPOILER POST-SCRIPT TO ONLY READ IF YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE: Thinking afterwards about those shots with the red white and blue lighting, I realized it must’ve been intentional foreshadowing. And always drinking vodka, like the Russians, might’ve been fake out foreshadowing. I like it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, August 3rd, 2017 at 11:23 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

35 Responses to “Atomic Blonde”

  1. Fuck yes. I knew this one would get you going, Vern. It’s hard to know for sure with JOHN WICK 2 also coming out this year, but ATOMIC BLONDE might be the best action film of 2017 in my book.

    I saw it as part of a BABY DRIVER / ATOMIC BLONDE double feature evening (of my own devising) at the Alamo Drafthouse, and I was struck with how retroactively empty BABY DRIVER felt in comparison. The music, the action, the story was better, more involving — I immediately wanted to see ATOMIC BLONDE again. If it hadn’t been so late at night I’d have bought another ticket immediately.

    Anyway, the action is top notch, the story is clear, interesting, and even though some of the twists and turns were a little predictable it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

    And those love scenes? Holy shit!

  2. It hasn’t started here yet, so let me just adress the Germany 1989 aspects: I was 7 years old, so I have no idea if Germans were breakdancing or using skateboards of a certain size. (Punk was definitely thing back then!) That top 30 video though…damn, that was a nostalgia blast! Now I don’t have an emotional attachment to most of the songs. In fact, the only two are RIDE ON TIME, which was one of the two songs in my childhood that taught me the concept of sampling and FRENCH KISS, which is a bonafide House Music classic, that every good DJ loves to drop in their sets from time to time, even in 2017. But I truly remember hearing most of them on the radio back then or seeing the videos on FORMEL EINS, Germany’s #1 musicvideo show of the pre-MTV era. (Except FRENCH KISS, which I guess wasn’t played very often, because it features some pretty sexual moaning and we were a bit uptight back then.)

    https://youtu.be/p22dl42qOjE

  3. There’s so much to like about this one that it really does flirt with greatness but it shoots itself in the foot too many times to really take off. I don’t see what value any of the framing device scenes have beyond giving one character more screentime so you’ll remember who he is in time for the likewise worthless twist. Those scenes just stop the film from gaining momentum, which should be this film’s main goal because the plot makes no sense if you’re given any time to think about it. By the end, I don’t know what got accomplished and why it mattered. It just felt like arbitrary clockwork twists and switchbacks completely divorced from the actual meat of the story.

    THAT SAID, Theron is superb, the fights are awesome, and the surface qualities of the film are all top notch. There’s just nothing below the shiny surface, which makes it hard to feel any of the catharsis a good asskicking film should have. It’s a study in aesthetics.

  4. The Stalker fight scene was probably the only action scene that was not feature at all in the trailer (for example the last action scene was very heavily feature in one of that trailer, so much that I actually thought it would be the opening action scene, and not the last one). That one was a pleasant surprised. This time we could actually recognize Bernhardt’s face. If it wasn’t from stills on imdb, I would not know Bernhardt was in Logan (I think he might be one of first Reavers that get killed on screen by X23).

    Daniel Bernhardt is also in the new Van Damme film Kill Em All (Peter Stormare is also in that one). It’s really cool to see him fight Van Damme (Van Damme also has a short fight scene with his son). Unfortuantly it’s not a very good fight.

    Overall I really enjoyed the film. There was some narrative stuff in the first hour I wasn’t to keen on, and I kinda want to see it again to reach a conclusion about it. I did have some problem with how high the music was played, I’m not sure that was a problem with the sound mix or my local theatre.

  5. I agree with some of Mr. Majestyk’s comment about the framing devices. I kinda wonder if I would like this more if it was just a straight up more of a “Female James Bond with a more down to earth action style”, rather than a cloak and dagger spy flick. I kinda feel action films are better when they have simple straight forward stories, and cloak and dagger spy flicks works better when they don’t have so much action. When you mix them, they usually end up as a mix bag, and they both end up suffering.

  6. I’d honestly rank this above both John Wick films but that’s a personal preference sort of thing. I just like spies way more than assassins. It totally is a very generic spy story, but they took it and ran it through a very specific sort of action movie filter, the end result of which has a stylized look but still feels fairly realistic. She doesn’t even kill that many people and some of the ones she only knocks out come back later in the movie. John Wick wanting revenge for his dog’s death generates easy sympathy but the story and world in Atomic Blonde felt way more human to me for those reasons. It’s a little crazier than a Bourne film, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to Bond levels of over the top. I wish people wouldn’t compare it to Bond or Wick so much because I truly believe it’s more of its own thing.

  7. I should stress that the good parts of this movie are very good, and the bad parts aren’t actually that bad at all but they do hold it back from being great. It’s not a home run but it is a solid line drive. I would definitely watch ATOMIC BLONDER set in the grunge era.

  8. Great thoughts, I’ve been struck by how underrated this has been. Where were all these people complaining about how difficult this allegedly is to follow when Tinker Tailor was being gushed over. This is a breeze by comparison!

  9. How much of the movie is actually flashbacks told during an interrogation? This scene from Rick and Morty explains the best how much I hate the device of “starts at end but then flashback to the beginning” bullshit.

    Morty's screenplay criticism | Rick and Morty | Adult Swim

    SUBSCRIBE to Adult Swim UK: http://bit.ly/1ntNOb5 This screenplay looks set for development hell. Watch Adult Swim every Thursday at 11pm on FOX UK. FACEBOOK...

  10. That “David Hasselhoff” line made me laugh.

  11. @Dennis: The critic’s and what seems to be a lot of the general public’s inability to comprehend the plot is baffling to me! Like a lot of really good critics are calling it too confusing and I just don’t get it. It’s not very complex by spy film standards, really, and the whole flashback structure pretty much exists to explain all of those details as the movie goes along. It felt like they built up to all the twists in a very linear fashion. Maybe it’s just an expectations thing, where a lot of people really just wanted a straight forward, John Wick style beat ’em up.

  12. I mostly really loved this; it only fallters in the car on your way home. My favorite moment had to be the Stalker sequence. I had a quick pulse of ohpleaseohpleaseohplease when the Сталкер posters began to proliferate on the screen, and then formed a corridor that funneled Broughton into The Zone on the other side of the screen. Second favorite Easter egg was when, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Lorraine walks into the hotel bar–to meet up with or bump into one or maybe two characters she may or may not have met before–while the piano player tickles “As Time Goes By” out of the ivories.

    But mostly I liked it because it’s the film that finally answers the age-old question: Which decade had both the best music and the worst interior design?

  13. Finally caught this one earlier today. I’m with Mr. Majestic. I liked this one, but the framing elements didn’t really help this story, imo. Would the movie have really been worse or that much more challenging, if they’d decided on taking the WONDER WOMAN tack with that type of thing then just put in 1-2 scenes after to complete the plot?

    I suspect I’m also less into the spycraft cloak and dagger things than other people.

    Good call, charliedabo, with the “As Time Goes By” moment. I also caught that and thought it was a nice touch.

  14. Thanks Charley, I forgot to mention the CASABLANCA nod, I liked that too.

  15. Vern, what ACR rating would you give this? As good as the John Wick films (4.9 and 4.8), or worse? While the stairwell scene and the Stalker fight scene are the only one that are up their with John Wick, I feel they are all well done.

  16. I think the the sport store fight in Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning deserves a place at the top of any such list, if we’re making lists.

  17. I went into this with the wrong mindset. I was expecting “Mrs. John Wick”. It aint. By a long shot.

    The action we do get is wonderful. A joy to watch. The problem is there just isn’t a whole lot of it. This is a talky, chatty flick. I’m not a dummy, but I felt like I had zero clue what was going on. Again, I am maybe blaming that on the fact that I went in expecting a fun action romp, and I was wrong. I saw it at the local Cinebarre and was drinking while watching, so maybe that didn’t help.

    But Charlize Theron is so wonderful. Anything Leitch directs, I will see day One from now on.

  18. I agree with everyone that it’s a great movie, but a little different than I was expecting and perhaps a little heavy on the intrigue. I was completely blown away by the one shot fight through the building. Any other small complaints are null and void because of it, in my book.

    That said, I will now go through those small complaints. It’s funny that Vern mentions the music and how they picked and chose the best ones of the time because I felt that same way about the fashions. It was a little too well done for me. I found myself getting taken out of the setting because of it. I can understand not putting her in high-waist acid wash jeans, but not one single set of shoulder pads or neon t-shirt? Come on. I’ll give you the head phones. A friend I saw it with says those were legit 1980s headphones, so it’s okay that she wasn’t using the orange foam covered ones that everyone else on the planet had, but I don’t buy that she wouldn’t have heavy eye makeup and teased out hair. That’s the exact haircut Debbie Harry had in the 80s and she was one of the coolest women around, so if she could tease out her hair, Lorraine could forgo the soft waves for a little bit of rat. Another friend said she completely bought the fashions because she figured it was Europe. I still don’t buy it. Can any of the European people on here confirm this? And, the most unbelievable thing of the entire movie was that she had a tiny, little suitcase and yet somehow came up with two extra coats and a pair of thigh-high boots.

    Regarding the plot, there were so many things that didn’t make sense to me. I’m trying to not dwell on it. Also, it’s one of those where it almost needs a second viewing to see if it makes sense after you know all the twists and turns. One of those things was what Vern mentioned about her pulling her turtle neck up to cover her face. Why? It wasn’t like she was trying to hide her identity from the cops. She just let all the cops inside the building see her face. It wasn’t like she was trying to hide her identity from any witnesses because she immediately takes it back down after the fight. My friend thought like Vern – enter stuntwoman. I thought it must be an image from the graphic novel, but if you can’t incorporate an iconic image in a way that makes sense to the story, then don’t do it.

    Another point that makes no sense to me is *SPOILERS* why was she fighting the Russians so much? I get that she had to fight them in that great scene to try and save the one guy, but why fight them in the car when they pick her up at the airport? Or in the movie theater? If you’re trying to convince someone you’re working with/for them, I would think fighting and crashing cars and stabbing them in the face would hurt this connection. But what do I know? I’m not a spy.

    One thing I was super impressed with was how good Theron is at micro-expressions. I don’t know how they do it, but I am always more impressed when an actor can convey an emotion with so much subtlety that it’s almost like they have no expression than when they go mega. She even can do it under water!

  19. I saw this back-to-back with Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 and noticed both movies feature choreography from Sam Hargrave. I read the Russo bros. also did some consulting on the latter.

    I certainly appreciated the action and skill on display in Atomic Blonde but never felt particularly invested in what was happening. I loved Wolf Warrior 2, though. It’s got the melodramatic, goofy cheese and bad CG that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a lot of Chinese or HK stuff, but it’s also one of the most fun, go-for-broke action movies I’ve seen recently. It could’ve used some more Frank Grillo, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re at all into that brand of action.

  20. Goshdarnit, I fell into a German Top 30 Of Yesteryear video hole! Thanks a lot, Vern, for showing me that these things even exist! (1994 was the hardest year to watch for me, because that was the one when 12 year old me actively started to care about popular music and let’s be honest, most of that shit is hard to like, unless it was an important part of your youth. https://youtu.be/68q5NhbDxVs )

  21. 1995 is even weirder, because it’s pretty much 50% “Hey, that’s pretty good” and 50% “WHAT THE FUCK WERE WE THINKING!? WERE WE ALL STUPID OR ON DRUGS!?!?”

    https://youtu.be/S-nyg0MNWWM

    (I stop posting these now)

  22. Think I’m with Mr Majestyk on this. Fantastic parts but too much of a mishmash of styles to love overall. The soundtrack was tend star for me. Anybody else see a Deutschland ’83 influence amongst the others?

    I certainly didn’t find it confusing but I guess people did were actually trying to follow the logic of the various betrayals and reversals rather than simply accepting that nobody was really on the side they claimed at the start.

    Takeout the period trappings and I can’t help comparing it unfavourably to Haywire. But that’s serious competition.

  23. Oh. Best foreshadowing was the idiot TV dude talking about sampling.

  24. Idiot TV dude? That was Kurt Loder!

  25. Don’t be dissing Kurt Loder!

    I watched some of Haywire a while back. The lack of good sounding effects on the punches and kicks really bothers me. It almost makes it feel like she doesn’t actually hit anybody. The choreography is good but not great. The score is phenomenal though.

  26. Did anybody else think that James McAvoy dressed like Tyler Durden?

  27. Afraid I’d never heard of Kurt Loder until I read these replies. Sorry.

  28. Would Kurt Loader be a good porn name?

  29. Mismatch of style is not uncommon in this kind of things. Who would thought many people will even accept these things.

  30. I normally don’t like movie in jokes, references, nods….that kind of thing. Always seems too easy and a bit coasting on “I’ve heard of that movie too!!” See Vern’s critique of the SWORDFISH opening monologue to better express my point.

    That said, the fight in front of STALKER was really, really cool. Summed up perfectly towards the end of this review…an academy award winner fighting a DTV star in front of a very deep and trance like piece of art. Holy cow.

    Perfect sequence too. Proves any “rule” to personal taste has its exceptions!!

  31. Loved this almost as much as I hoped I would.

    Yes, the framing device really added little but it’s OK that it’s there – no, I guess the biggest shock was how little to it plot wise there ultimately was. I think I was expecting more, but I suppose that’s not the films fault.

    But the aesthetic, the soundtrack, the atmosphere, the cast and the great, great action (the stairwell scene is already a modern classic and I wanted to applaud when Theron pulled her mask down after the “Father Figure” fight so we know it’s all her) made me fall in love with it.

    (The general mood in the cinema seemed kinda down as the credits rolled, which was odd. I came out smiling but most of the crowd seemed kinda pissed off. I wish I’d stopped one of them to ask what was up.)

  32. Maybe they were annoyed about the twist?

  33. That was probably it, Felix.

    Just read that ATOMIC BLONDE has now made the same as the similarly budgeted JOHN WICK at the box office – hopefully we’ll get a sequel?

  34. I’ll watch that!

    Just have Amy Johnston be one of the opponents Charlize has to fight in the sequel.

  35. Despite being really excited for this one, being invited TWO free advanced screenings and this one being out for almost month, I finally made it to this one. It was worth the wait. I do agree with Mr. M that the framing device keeps stopping the movie dead and holds it back (just a little bit) but when everything else is so damned good, who cares? Despite the framing device issues, I’d still rank this one as great. Who’d have thunk Theron would have turned into one of our most solid go-to’s for genre films (the SNOW WHITE one where she was the best part of it not-withstanding)?

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