Friday, July 28, 2017

Atomic Blonde: A noisy bomb

Atomic Blonde (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for strong violence, nudity, sexuality and relentless profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.28.17

British author Antony Johnston obviously grew up reading John Le Carré, because his 2012 graphic novel — The Coldest City, with moody art by Sam Hart — is laden with the sort of spycraft that George Smiley would have recognized: bleak cynicism, operatives known only by code names, squabbling between Intelligence Agency factions, cut-outs, traitors and double-crosses.

It's just another day in the office for Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), as she tries
to prevent KGB thugs from reaching — and killing — the defecting East German
intelligence officer under her protection.
The story takes place in Berlin in November 1989, immediately before and after East and West are unified. An undercover MI6 agent is killed trying to bring invaluable information back to the British: a list believed to identify every espionage agent working on both sides of the wall. Veteran undercover operative Lorraine Broughton is sent to Berlin, to retrieve the list and identify her colleague’s killer; her task is complicated by the chaos of mass demonstrations calling for unification, while KGB loyalists resist with increasing viciousness.

Definitely a hook on which to hang a slick, thoughtful espionage saga.

Too bad director David Leitch and scripter Kurt Johnstad didn’t see it that way.

They’ve essentially re-cast 2014’s loathsomely violent John Wick with a female lead, and the briefest of nods to genre spycraft. (No surprise there, since Leitch was an uncredited co-director on the first Wick.) The distinction is immediately obvious with a name change — Atomic Blonde — that more accurately reflects star Charlize Theron’s luminously white hairstyle, and the luxuriously wild outfits that she wears so well: most of them also vibrant white, with striking black accoutrements. Costume designer Cindy Evans, take a bow.

The Berlin setting is persuasively reproduced by production designer David Scheunemann; cinematographer Jonathan Sela deserves equal credit for gritty street scenes, strobe-lit nightclubs and shadow-laden noir tableaus. No question: This film looks terrific, and feels like the ideal backdrop for cloak-and-dagger subterfuge.

But Leitch has no finer sensibilities. His film is flashy trash: violent, tawdry and depressingly nihilistic. Midway through this two-hour exercise in brutality, it becomes impossible to keep track of who’s good, bad or in between; Johnstad’s script keeps changing its mind, seemingly on every other page.

Not that Leitch’s target audience will care, or likely even notice. They’ll turn up to watch Theron punch, pummel and pulverize all who dare interfere with her mission. She does this with considerable style; as a longtime stunt and action coordinator making his first credited feature debut, Leitch definitely knows his way around close-quarters, all-stops-out melees.

One of the best comes during the third act, as Theron’s Lorraine struggles to protect a defecting Stasi agent from half a dozen (eight? 10?) KGB thugs. The skirmish eventually boils down to Lorraine and one relentless opponent, both beating each other mercilessly — the punishment looking far more credibly painful, than often is the case in such films — and both ultimately exhausted, spent and barely able to raise an arm, let alone throw another punch or kick.

It’s a darkly serious skirmish, because the stakes are dire, but there’s no question that Leitch stages it for macabre humor.

Too bad he isn’t that inventive during the rest of his film. Ultimately, Atomic Blonde is just another callous, exploitatively self-indulgent dose of wretched excess that hopes to pound its audience into submission. This process is accelerated by Tyler Bates’ gawdawful loud score, and the dozens of period punk and New Wave anthems — by David Bowie, Public Enemy, Ausschlag, Siouzsie & The Banshees, Marilyn Manson and numerous others — that similarly shriek their way throughout the film.


The story takes place via flashback, as Lorraine is de-briefed after her tempestuous visit to East and West Berlin, by MI6 investigator Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and section Chief “C” (James Faulkner); a clearly annoyed Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), visiting from the American CIA, also sits in. Lorraine takes them back a week, to when she was sent to liaise with reckless Berlin station chief David Percival (James McAvoy).

Percival has been planted within the German spy community for so long, that he has “gone native,” becoming as aggressively duplicitous and hedonistic as the deceitful, casually impetuous sociopaths with whom he regularly consorts. Calling him unstable is the grossest of understatements, but is he trustworthy?

McAvoy attacks the role with relish, mayonnaise and the entire contents of the condiments shelf, making Percival a grotesque: more caricature than human being, and nobody to be taken seriously. He and Lorraine frequently spar, and trade flinty gazes — something they’re both skilled at — but it’s ultimately no more than movie posing.

The script does better with novice French intelligence agent Delphine Lasalle (the exotic Sofia Boutella), who surveilles Lorraine from a distance, until deciding that she can be trusted. (Or can she?) (Alternatively, can Delphine be trusted?) Theron and Boutella bring genuine chemistry to the wary dynamic between Lorraine and Delphine, although — given Leitch’s sensibilities — this is mostly an excuse for a hot-hot-hot sex scene between the two women (Theron, now as always, being far from shy).

Meager clues eventually point to a terrified Stasi intelligence officer code-named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan, an always reliable character actor), believed to possess the microfilmed list of Berlin operatives. Information is supplied to both sides by the enigmatic Watchmaker (Til Schweiger), a craftsman who conceals data within the inner workings of expensive wristwatches. (Hey, why not?)

The Watchmaker is a character who’s just, well, there. No further explanation thought necessary.

It’s difficult to determine whether Lorraine makes actual progress; the meager plot elements in Johnstad’s script are little more than vague filler in between Theron’s wildly aggressive fight scenes. Leitch and stunt director Sam Hargrave choreograph these melees with a distinct nod toward Jackie Chan, as Lorraine resourcefully battles her opponents with a variety of “found” objects (love the sequence with the fire hose).

The resulting skirmishes gain additional oomph from editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, but it’s important to note that they’re not built solely via staccato cutting; Leitch “holds” on the action scenes for extended periods, granting a suspenseful intensity akin to the mano a mano melees in the Jason Bourne series.

But there’s such a thing as too much, and — Theron’s athletic physicality notwithstanding — the results grow redundant and tiresome long before we reach the third act, which is just more of the same (as was the case with both John Wick entries). The overly embroidered depravity doesn’t help.

Ultimately, Leitch just can’t get out of his own way, when it comes to telling this story ... not that Johnstad’s script offers much of a story to tell. You’re much better off seeking the Johnston/Hart graphic novel.

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