In recent years we have very quietly entered into an action movie renaissance without much uproar. So I’ll just go ahead and say it now, action movies are better now than they ever have been before. Gone are the days of loud foreign men screaming stupid one-liners while overactive squibs spurt corn syrup everywhere. We are living in a post-John-Wick society, everyone. And we are never looking back.
Atomic Blonde is based off a graphic novel in which Charlize Theron plays a Cold War-era spy working on a covert mission in the last days of segregated Berlin. Like all the best graphic novel adaptations, it comes with it a stunning veneer of hyper stylized cinematography that illuminates the senses with immense satisfaction. This is probably the film’s biggest strength, as many of the film’s best shots could be displayed in a pop art museum. The production team did an excellent job creating a believable and immersive Communist Berlin that feels both Orwellian and oddly post-modern at the same time. It was a delight to watch such a well-realized world be executed with such panache. It reminded me a lot of a distinctly more brazen Man From Uncle. The atmosphere was only amplified with the aid of a fantastic New-Wave soundtrack underscoring the film in a way that never failed to keep the audience engaged.
As I alluded to in the preface, the action in this film is utterly spectacular. This is aided by the fact that the director, David Leitch, is an experienced stuntman with over twenty years under his belt. While this is is his first outing as a director, he was very influential on the set of the first John Wick film. This fact is apparent in every action scene as the same visceral realistic action style was brought to the choreography. Not to mention the fact that Charlize Theron did nearly all of her own stunts. All of this combined made a final product that would put the shaky-cam, jump-cut action of the likes of Jason Bourne to complete shame. Towards the end of this film, there is an unbelievable one-shot action sequence that can only be described as nothing less than pure art. I know it might sound ridiculous to refer to a fight scene as art, but in this case, there is no other praise that is applicable. However, as incredible as the action, cinematography, and direction in the movie is, the film remains flawed.
The biggest frustration watching this film is the unfulfilled potential. It could have been incredible. Most aspects of the film are genuinely terrific: the acting, the aforementioned cinematography, and action, the mise-en-scene…unfortunately, the storytelling is just lacking. It can be kind of plodding, with many of the quieter scenes dragging without a clear direction. The structure of the film is pretty weak, revolving around a poorly executed interrogation plot. Most of the film’s cards are concealed so as to have a final act reveal on par with The Usual Suspects, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work out the same way. Some of the turns are considerably played-out and telegraphed, and results in a story that really just adopts a substandard script. It’s still entertaining enough as it is, but could have been so much more with a better screenplay. I still had a lot of fun with it, but there just was a constant voice in the back of my head reminding me of what could have been. In the end, though, it’s worth seeing just for the stairwell sequence. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.
All images are from Atomic Blonde, a film by Focus Features