Monday, July 31, 2017

In Theaters: ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by David Leitch. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger, James Faulkner, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgard, Roland Moller, Barbara Sukowa, Johannes Hauker Johannessen, Sam Hargrave, Lili Gessler, Sara Natasa Szonda. (R, 115 mins)

A Cold War espionage actioner that's an endlessly stylish exercise in retro late '80s cool, ATOMIC BLONDE is adapted from the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City and it's a vehicle custom-engineered for Charlize Theron. Set in the final days before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, ATOMIC BLONDE has several extended action sequences that are stunning on their own, playing out in long and seemingly single-cut fashion that was new and exciting back in 2006 with CHILDREN OF MEN. But these sorts of set pieces--yes, blood hits the camera--have been done many times since, and the illusion loses a little something when one has seen enough of them to spot the editors' trickery and see exactly where the cuts are. That doesn't mean they aren't brilliantly choreographed and convincingly done--Theron is a force of nature when she's kicking ass--but the style in which they're executed by director David Leitch, making his "official" debut as a director even though he co-directed JOHN WICK as a team with Chad Stahelski but had to go uncredited due to a snafu with the DGA, sticks out as too present-day amidst the almost obsessive, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY-level attention to period detail. ATOMIC BLONDE's interior production design and location work in Budapest and Berlin nails that pervasive sense of gloom and gray that screams "John Le Carre," along with some '80s tunes that are used very effectively--Theron strutting through a West Berlin bar drenched in red neon to the tune of After the Fire's "Der Kommissar" is just perfect--but the two distinct aesthetics never quite coalesce.

A framing device has MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) being debriefed by her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones), who's accompanied by CIA agent Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as all are watched from behind the glass by MI-6 chief "C" (James Faulkner). Broughton was assigned to West Berlin to retrieve a list conveniently termed "The List," which named all British operatives deployed to the Soviet Union and fell into the KGB's hands after Broughton's fellow agent and lover James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) was murdered. The List was given to Gasciogne by a meek East German Stasi officer known as "Spyglass" (Eddie Marsan) who was working with agents from the west and hoping to use it as leverage to defect with his wife and daughter. Broughton was set to meet MI-6 agent David Percival (James McAvoy) in West Berlin, but as she explains, "I was made before my feet hit the ground." She's abducted by KGB goons and manages to kill them before finally meeting Percival, a loose cannon who's completely undercover in the Berlin underground, selling stolen merchandise with his specialty being the hugely-popular-in-the-East Jordache jeans. Broughton has several irons in the fire on her assignment: she must retrieve The List, deal with cowboy Percival, work on a plan to get Spyglass into West Berlin, and figure out the identity of "Satchel," a double agent who's working for MI-6 but providing intel to the KGB. She also finds time for a torrid fling with novice French agent Delphine Lasalle (THE MUMMY's Sofia Boutella) and endures constant bruising and battering but always emerging victorious in some truly nasty and brutal fight scenes.

I realize mileage may vary for some and ATOMIC BLONDE isn't supposed to be the second coming of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, but it's is so hypnotically captivating in its non-action sequences that, for me, the spell was broken and I was taken out of the film somewhat with the CGI-abetted action sequences and digital splatter started taking over. This is in no way a deal-breaker and most likely won't even be an issue on a second viewing, but I'm a sucker for gray, overcast, and dreary espionage and that, coupled with some striking locations and imaginative ideas like staging a brawl between Broughton and some Russian spies at a packed screening of Andrei Tarkovsky's STALKER, is enough to make hardcore cinephiles giddy. Leitch uses period pop music brilliantly, and whether it's a violent, bonebreaking fight scene set to George Michael's "Father Figure" (that's right up there with the "Ordinary World" beatdown in LAYER CAKE) or KGB operative Bakhtin (Johannes Hauker Johanessen) beating a breakdancing Berlin kid to death to the tune of Nena's "99 Luftballoons," the music choices are spot-on. That's something a lot of these present-day Cold War period pieces nail perfectly, whether it's Julio Iglesias' "La Mer" for the montage at the end of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out" and Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell" in 2009's little-seen FAREWELL, and both FAREWELL and ATOMIC BLONDE prominently feature Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure."

But this is really The Charlize Theron Show first and foremost, and the Oscar-winning actress got a serious boost among action fans for her work as Imperator Furiosa in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and she continued on that new career path with THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS and now ATOMIC BLONDE. She's nothing short of perfect here, and Theron kicking ass manages to supersede any issues I may have with the more modern style of the action and visual effects techniques breaking the spell the filmmakers cast as they so vividly capture the look and feel of the final days and hours before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They even go out of their way to make the it look like it was made in 1989, complete with old-fashioned and slightly blurry subtitles and location work in Budapest and some parts of Berlin that have remained largely unchanged over the last 30 years. It's in these scenes that ATOMIC BLONDE looks so convincing that you'd swear it's what might've happened if Wim Wenders followed 1987's WINGS OF DESIRE with a mainstream spy movie. ATOMIC BLONDE also gets bonus points for providing a small role for Rainer Werner Fassbinder regular Barbara Sukowa, further establishing its old-school bona fides.

No comments:

Post a Comment