MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Atomic Blonde’ is radioactive

Sleeker, more poetic and smarter than its 'John Wick' counterpart, this Charlize Theron-led extravaganza is a wonderful reflection of modern action cinema

| July 26, 2017

When it comes to action films, Hollywood has come a long way. Sure, the market is still saturated with tons of terrible action films produced by Grindstone Entertainment and other similar brands, but the mainstream has drifted very far from the olden days of cheesy one-liners and insane action, but has boiled down to a hard line, badass sort of finesse that we haven’t seen before. A big game-changer in this genre was in the form of “John Wick,” a 2014 film that came out of nowhere to surprise everyone in being one of the cornerstones of modern action cinema today, including its successful sequel released earlier this year. Another major cornerstone at the corner of action and blockbuster lies “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a masterpiece of both genres that re-introduced the world to just how amazing Charlize Theron really is. Naturally, it would only be so long before she crosses paths with the action genre straight-on, so why not do it with the director of “John Wick?” While the directing duo of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch split after the first “John Wick” film, with Stahelski returning for the sequel, Leitch was hard at work developing an adaption of the 2002 graphic novel “The Coldest City” with Theron starring. If we add it up, we have “John Wick” level action, Theron’s presence as a badass, and the setting being 1980s Europe, which has my attention.

And kept it, for that matter, too.

Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is a highly respected MI6 agent, skilled in hand-to-hand combat and peak espionage skills, she is sent by MI6 to Berlin in the last days of the Cold War to investigate the murder of a covert agent carrying a list of double agents in the system now in enemy hands. Upon arrival, Lorraine is paired with Berlin-based MI6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy), an egotistical, volatile, sketchy agent who finds himself drawn to Lorraine. As the investigation into the whereabouts of the list goes underway, as well as many interactions with new faces, such as French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), East Berlin contact Merkel (Bill Skarsgård) and illegal messenger under the guise of The Watchmaker (Til Schweiger), Lorraine begins to realize that someone on the inside is sabotaging her mission by colluding with the enemy. As the clock ticks and political tensions rise, the situation Lorraine finds herself in becomes more and more dangerous.

I’ll be in the minority in saying that I liked “Atomic Blonde” more than I liked either of the “John Wick” films, both of which I enjoyed immensely. Leitch’s stab at the genre by himself is a reminder that films can be sleek and poetic at the same time; just because a film is colorful and sharp, doesn’t relegate it to a cartoon-ish fate. This is a beautiful looking film with some insane action in it, but the film also has a lot of heart and power held behind Theron’s icy façade. This is a film that’s very sure about its visual splendor and the distinctive setting that 1980s Germany brings to a piece of art. Situated at a crossroads between old and new Europe, the distinctive and interesting time period the film sets itself in provides the film with a very interesting aesthetic, as well as an emotional atmosphere that simply wouldn’t be present had the film set itself in a modern setting. “Atomic Blonde” has an absolutely stunning aesthetic about it. While it utilizes the cold, steely feel that ’80s Europe held, with the bright, neon and almost gawdy lights that defined the ’80s as well. It’s like if a Cold War thriller and “Saved by the Bell” became the same aesthetic, and then put Charlize Theron in the lead. The balance between these two looks is nicely done as well, as the film doesn’t feel completely over-the-top in its colorfulness, nor does it feel cold and distant from its outside segments.

It’s no surprise that Theron is a badass, but she brings a sort of icy brilliance to Broughton that we haven’t seen from her yet, and after so man personas taken on in her career, is impressive. As a dedicated British agent, she brings a poise and elegance to her character that many action stars fail to bring in lieu of more badassery, to which Theron challenges by using her charm and elegance as a form of badassery on top of her insane combat skills. Theron is insanely dedicated to this role, with audiences being able to obviously tell that the South African actress is pulling her own stunts throughout the entire film, and a special sort of legendary status during an 8-minute single take action sequence that shows off the best that action filmmaking, as well as stunt work has to offer. It’s thrilling and quite incredible to watch.

Supporting roles are also filled out quite well, too. McAvoy is as magnetic as ever as Percival, as a sort of lovable skeez that you should hate, but can’t bring yourself to do, which is sorta becoming McAvoy’s brand in a sense. Boutella has a good performance as well, getting the chance to flex more of an emotional muscle in this film than she was able to in any of her previous roles, including “The Mummy.”

The soundtrack to “Atomic Blonde” also kicks quite a bit of ass, perhaps surpassing the aural gravitas that “Baby Driver” brought in its original soundtrack. While the film didn’t utilize the music in direct reference to its visuals, its use of existing ’80s synth-pop over an orchestral score is a filmmaking choice that I’m with any day of the week. This is a bombastic movie that uses the best that music has to offer to its advantage, and finds a lot of personality in itself from its use of music. I want the soundtrack stat.

But what about the story of “Atomic Blonde?” This is where most critics are degrading the film because it’s story isn’t as rich as they wanted it to be. While the film’s story is admittedly straightforward, so is every other action film of its kind too, but few hardly have the balls to take on stuff like “Atomic Blonde” does. Sure, it’s not the most thematically deep film this year, but neither were either of the “John Wick” films, or “Baby Driver,” or “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” There’s an expectation on “Atomic Blonde” to do every single thing correctly because it has the added caveat of being an “important” action film with a woman in the lead, and while many people aren’t putting forth this expectation on the film, I have found quite a few critics complaining about the same thing in “Atomic Blonde” that they dismissed in their other reviews. In this day and age, execution is just as powerful as thematic prowess, and if we’re being real here, “Atomic Blonde” might not have the depth of something like “War for the Planet of the Apes,” but it sure as hell has more depth than any of the aforementioned films, as well as more impressive execution.

Another thing about “Atomic Blonde” that I loved that actually doesn’t have much to do with the film itself, but just in how proud I am of Focus Features for branching out into more genres than it normally does. It’s nice seeing such a promoted and respected movie being headed by an indie studio rather than one of the giant studios of today.

“Atomic Blonde” is a slam-bang, kick-ass, balls-to-the-wall extravaganza of bone-shattering proportions. Theron proves herself to be the single best action star, or actor in general for that matter to grace screens with an undeniable, irreplaceable presence. This is a film that combines sleek, modern filmmaking with a classic elegance that we don’t typically get to have both of when it comes to action cinema. The story isn’t the most compelling story of the year, plus the film does go for about five minutes too long, but for how well-executed the film is, as well as the fact that the story is by no means nonexistent, in fact quite more present than many other acclaimed films of 2017, it balances out wonderfully. Add in one of the best soundtracks to a film in a long time, as well as the potential to go for, or not go for a franchise is quite refreshing, as the way “Atomic Blonde” ends doesn’t leave you guessing, nor does it shut the door on the prospect of taking an adventure with Agent Broughton again. And with that, I hereby ask for four sequels, two prequels and a spinoff to “Atomic Blonde.” Given how much worse stuff constitutes franchises and cinematic universes, I think “Atomic Blonde” is more than deserving.

4.5/5

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Directed by: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, and Toby Jones.
Runtime: 115 minutes
Rating: R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.
Also available in Dolby Cinema exclusively at AMC Concord Mills.

Focus Features presents, in association with Sierra Pictures, a Denver & Delilah Productions, Chickie The Cop, TGIM Films and 87Eleven production, a film by David Leitch, “Atomic Blonde”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman

Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman

Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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