Thursday, August 3, 2017

Atomic Blonde: She's a Lady, and a Killer

Charlize Theron is cool as ice in "Atomic Blonde"
These boots are made for kicking in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch’s sexy, overstuffed actioner of new-age kineticism and carefully curated retro cool. Forged of tactile black leather and stretching what seems like acres up to their subject’s knee, the boots adorn the statuesque body of Charlize Theron, that South African goddess with a 14-year-old Oscar and a newfound thirst for blood. As a one-armed warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron showcased a bristling physicality that meshed nicely with her more classical qualities. She has all of her limbs back in Atomic Blonde, and good thing too, since she does roughly as much talking with her fists—and those boots—as with her mouth.

If anything, there’s too much dialogue in Atomic Blonde, which tends to stall whenever its heroine isn’t in slick, liquid motion. Adapting the graphic novel The Coldest City, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300—you get what you pay for) piles on the spy-speak and the Bournean intrigue, layering the busy plot with triple agents, double-crosses, and a single ungainly framing device. It isn’t incomprehensible, exactly, but Leitch, who previously co-directed John Wick before departing its sequel to make this film, has little use for all this blather. He’s much more interested in cranking up the music—the post-punk-heavy soundtrack here feels like the offspring of a union between The Americans and Deutschland 83—and unleashing his leading lady as an unstoppable force of lithe, purposeful destruction.

And why not? First seen rising out of an ice bath like a frosted phoenix, Theron is the movie’s greatest special effect, gliding through the film with a lethality that’s as dismissive as it is deadly. It’s tempting to label her character, the MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, as a female version of John Wick, the brooding assassin played by Keanu Reeves who three years ago unexpectedly launched a franchise. But while Lorraine is roughly as invincible as John, she’s happier company, more likely to smirk than scowl. Still, as she stares into a mirror in her introduction, eyes swollen and face bruised, it’s clear that you’d best not cross her.

Good luck buying her a drink.
Many fools do, of course. Set primarily in Germany in 1989, Atomic Blonde is structured as an elaborate Cold War spy game, complete with Stasi defectors, hidden microfilm, and cryptic jewelers who make more than just watches. At the behest of her superiors, Gray (Toby Jones) and C (James Faulkner, aka Randyll Tarly on Game of Thrones), Lorraine travels to this hotbed of new wave and betrayal to recover “The List”, a precious catalog of secret agents that sounds a lot like the MacGuffin at the center of the first Mission: Impossible film. There she meets David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow operative stationed in Berlin who has, in C’s words, “gone native.”

I’ll say. If Lorraine is a coolly controlled terminator—less than five minutes after landing in Germany, and she’s already slamming a red high-heeled shoe into the neck of her ill-intentioned chauffeur—Percival is a devil-may-care prankster, an unhinged clown who’s liable to erupt into a murderous rage at any moment. McAvoy, in a performance only slightly more restrained than his hammy turn in Split, gives Percival an agitated physical presence, clashing productively against Theron’s regal stoicism. She’s the killing queen; he’s the demented jester.

"I think I fucking love you." Get in line, dude.
Their toxic anti-chemistry helps distract from Atomic Blonde’s storyline, which feels like warmed-over John le Carré. There’s much fretting over the identity of a double agent called Satchel, and the movie uses its pointless flashback structure—in which Lorraine narrates the film’s events to Gray and a CIA handler, Kurzfeld (John Goodman), as a number of suspicious-looking besuited men watch anxiously through a two-way mirror—to insinuate that anyone could be the traitorous mole. “Who is Satchel?” people wonder constantly. The answer proves to be both genuinely surprising and entirely beside the point; the script’s final ten pages could be completely rewritten to make anyone Satchel, and the alteration would have minimal effect on what came before.

The irrelevance of Atomic Blonde’s plot is irritating, given how much time the film devotes to its purported mysteries. But it also demonstrates that its strengths are pretty much writer-proof. This isn’t a geopolitical thriller, it’s an action movie, and the majority of Leitch’s set pieces are crisp, taut, and smartly choreographed. What’s more—and in a pleasant departure from the John Wick ethos—they aren’t overly reliant on gunplay, which in most modern action pictures feels sanitized and remote. Instead, Leitch favors hand-to-hand combat, which he conveys with immediacy and clarity. Performing a number of her own stunts, Theron turns Lorraine into the perfect combination of artist and brute; she makes you marvel at the balletic grace of her movements, but she also makes you feel the sting of every punch.

Whack! Crunch! Pow!
Atomic Blonde’s action is consistently impressive, but only once does it become truly transcendent. The movie’s signature sequence—the scene that will be cited by genre historians for years to come, and one of the most electrifying fight scenes since a naked Viggo Mortensen battled two Russian thugs in a sauna in Eastern Promises—is a sprawling, savage brawl between Lorraine and two unnamed foes, which begins in an apartment complex’s vertiginous stairwell before eventually spilling out into the harsh sunlight and transforming into a car chase. In what appears to be a single take (there are undoubtedly invisible cuts, given the severity of the violence and the sophistication of the stunt work), Lorraine punches, kicks, and stabs her way to salvation, a whirling avatar of death. It’s one of the few moments, in a film laden with kickass ’80s tunes, that Leitch kills the music, instead filling your ears with the grueling sounds of combat: the grunts of weary fighters, the squelch of a knife penetrating skin, the snapping of bone as Lorraine’s boot finds its mark.

It’s a shockingly intense sequence in a movie that otherwise feels slick, chic, and a little bit vapid. Atomic Blonde sounds great and looks terrific—blue is the coldest color here, with Leitch and his cinematographer, Jonathan Sela (who also shot John Wick), lighting the interiors in a chilly cobalt—but aside from that stairwell fight and Theron’s platinum-glazed charisma, it isn’t especially memorable.

OK, SHE can buy her a drink.
Except, that is, when Lorraine shares the screen with Delphine Lasalle, a French intelligence officer who has far less experience than Lorraine but a far cooler name. Delphine is played by Sofia Boutella, the meteorically rising Algerian actress whose Beastie Boys-loving Jaylah was the best thing about the underrated Star Trek Beyond. She’s even better here, delivering an emotive performance that’s part-feistiness, part-fear; in her too-brief screen time, she lends Atomic Blonde a startling charge of genuine feeling. A scene where Lorraine and Delphine trade meaningful glances at a bar carries more heat than a thousand Michael Bay-engineered explosions. And later, in a powerful sequence set to Kaleida’s haunting cover of “99 Luftballoons”, she imbues the film with sudden, surprising poignancy. It’s a beautifully complementary supporting turn. Theron, with her acerbity and agility, supplies Atomic Blonde with its icy cool. Boutella gives it a heart.

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