Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stubs - Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde (2017) Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella. Directed by David Leitch. Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad. Based on the Graphic Novel: The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Produced by Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A. J. Dix, Kelly McCormick, Eric Gitter, Peter Schwerin.  Run Time: 115 min. U.S. Action, Spy, Thriller

You have to give Charlize Theron a lot of credit. A statuesque beauty, she has made a career playing less than glamorous roles, including Monster (2003) and just two years ago, she starred in Mad Max: Fury Road as Imperator Furiosa, a soldier with a mechanical arm. This year she plays Lorraine Broughton, a top-level MI6 field agent in Atomic Blonde, a film she also produced. While there are no mechanical arms on Lorraine, to say that she is a glamorous spy would be wrong. This is a very visceral role that Theron had to train extensively for.

Lorraine (Charlize Theron) tells her story during a debriefing led by Eric Gray
(Toby Jones),
 her M-6 supervisor and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).

Set in the days around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Lorraine is sent by her superiors to retrieve a list of spies on both sides of the Cold War that has fallen into the hands of a Russian spy, thanks to the assassination of M-6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave). Lorraine’s contact in Berlin is David Percival (James McAvoy) the only other M-6 Operative then in the city. The story unfolds through her post-mission debriefing in front of Chief 'C' (James Faulkner), the head of M-6, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), her M-6 supervisor and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).

David Percival (James McAvoy) is her M-6 contact in Berlin.
The story that unfolds has a lot in common with a standard James Bond mission. There are double agents, fight scenes, and lovers, but there is a twist to nearly everything along the way. There is a lot to suggest that Lorraine Broughton is a true female Bond, that the world has been searching for in these days of diversity. But that would be a bit of an understatement. On one hand, the film succeeds where Bond sometimes fails, at the same time, the reverse is also true.

The fight scenes are well done and very visceral.

Unlike most hero films, Lorraine is shown to be very human. In the fight scenes, of which there are several, we get a real sense that she gets as much as she hands out. There is one fight, in particular, a ten-minute seemingly one-shot sequence, in which we hear her give her all as well as the sense that she is also getting the you-know-what kicked out of her at the same time. These are perhaps the most visceral fist fights in recent memory on film.

But there are issues as well. The premise, the recovery of a list of agents, is as old as the spy genre. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, but this sounds like well-trodden territory.  Also, while we’re following Lorraine, we never really know why she goes some places, other than it is in the script. New to Berlin, she seems to know her way around and even makes contact with a loyal band of underground protesters in East Berlin, even though she is warned at the outset not to trust anyone. But it is the audience that is left not sure who to trust.

For a spy, someone you would suspect would try to fit in, Lorraine truly stands out. Not only is she tall and impeccably dressed, but her blonde hair is eye-catching. Even she realizes it as on occasion she tries to hide it under a hoodie or even a wig.

The film does a really good job recreating the environment of Berlin in 1989, from the music (the soundtrack features not only several David Bowie songs but also the original German versions of Peter Schilling’s Major Tom aka Völlig Losgelöst and Nena‘s 99 Red Balloons aka 99 Luftballons) to the actual wall itself, which is quite believably reconstructed. There is also the use of what appear to be television news reports that document the time.

There are some really good performances along the way in addition to Theron’s. James McAvoy’s Percival is nearly impossible to predict. Even though his appearance is somewhat brief, John Goodman gives his usual solid-performance. It is easy to see why he seems to be cast in every movie made. Sofia Boutella, who we first saw in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and was most recently prominent in Universal’s The Mummy (2017) misstep, plays a very different character here. Boutella's Delphine Lasalle is a French spy who is in over her head, one of the many characters Lorraine comes in contact with in Berlin, though they come in contact with each other several times.

Sofia Boutella plays Delphine Lasalle, a French spy in Berlin.

Overall, I’m not really sure what to make of Atomic Blonde. Obviously well-thought out and well-made, I never really connected with it. I can admire what they put on the screen, but they never pulled me in. Maybe your experience might be different, mine might explain why this film didn’t do better at the box office. If you’re a fan of Theron’s or if you’re itching for a Cold War spy film, then this is a must see. Otherwise, you might find something else at the multiplex to watch instead.

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