Blurred Vision: 'Atomic Blonde' fails to deliver the thrills of its bygone era
3 out of 5 Stars
Director: David Leitch
Writers: Kurt Johnstad, Antony Johnston (graphic novel), Sam Hart (graphic novel
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Genre: Action, thriller
Rated: R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Synopsis: MIG Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Berlin to locate a list that could potentially expose all of the undercover agents working around the world.
Review: The year is 1989. Tensions are rising in the still-divided Berlin as Lorraine Broughton, a MI6 operative, descends upon the city.
1989 was a year of change for me, as well as for Berlin. I had just really discovered music and East Berlin was finally getting a taste of freedom. It would be a decade or so before I visited the Berlin, but I fell in love with the city, its history and its people. They were still picking up the pieces, trying to figure out what to hold on to and what to throw away.
I’ve looked forward to “Atomic Blonde” for months. The trailers promised a slick, synthpop infused spy thriller with an atmosphere as cool as the Cold War itself. Besides, the thought of Charlize Theron starring in a fast-paced thriller from David Leitch, one of the forces behind the first John Wick film and the director of the upcoming Deadpool sequel, sounded like a perfect combination. Had I taken the time to figure out that screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (“300,” “Act of Valor”) was involved I might have dialed back my expectations.
I’m not familiar with Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” so I’m not in a position to really know how faithful Johnstad’s adaptation is, but I can tell you that “Atomic Blonde” is fundamentally flawed by a general sense of laziness and an incredibly inconsistent tone. It isn’t as idiotic as Angelina Jolie’s “Salt,” a film that was billed as the “female James Bond,” but it is a massive disappointment nonetheless.
“Atomic Blonde” doesn’t know how seriously to take itself. Theron plays it cold, cool and straight, but James McAvoy and various supporting characters lean towards a campiness that doesn’t serve the film’s visual aesthetic. The story itself is nothing new as an agent is sent into a foreign city to track down a list that reveals the identities and allegiances of various undercover agents working around the globe. Of course the difference here is that it is a woman, rather than a man, who is entrusted with the task of locating the list. The problem is that Leitch seems more interested in making things look cool than he is in making a film that has any depth. The characters are paper thin and there are so many twists that come in the final act that any sort of read that I had on Theron’s Lorraine Broughton were brushed aside.
“Atomic Blonde” is a movie that keeps the audience at a distance. There’s nothing to latch on to. It never feels dangerous, only reckless. It tries to be clever, but is rarely smart.
The most disappointing aspect of the film is its seemingly random selection of music. “Baby Driver” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” used music in a way that felt organic and connected to the narrative. “Atomic Blonde” feels like someone picked up a German “Best of the ‘80s” compilation and just let it play. There are some great songs included, but in many cases they were simply the wrong songs for the era the film takes place in. Including Nena’s “99 Luftballons” and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom ((Völlig Losgelöst)” are far too obvious. After the Fire’s “Der Kommissar” only works if the film is a self-referencing comedy. Including Schilling’s “The Different Story (World of Lust and Crime)” would make far more sense because it was from the era or his “Berlin City of Night” for obvious reasons. I know this is nitpicking, but sometimes the obvious choices are the wrong choices. Being true to the decade isn’t the same thing as being true to the moment. If you’re making a film about the Vietnam War you select tracks that are influenced, referenced or at the very least released during the war. 1989 was a landmark year for electronic music, to populate the soundtrack with tracks predominately released prior to 1985 was a missed opportunity to really capture the specific mood of the time.
Edgar Wright’s musical choices are all over the map in “Baby Driver,” but the songs work in the context of the film because the film isn’t trying to be a very specific time. It could be this year, next year or twelve days past tomorrow. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is targeting a general sense of time, a feeling of an era. You could argue that “Atomic Blonde” is attempting to copy that format, but the song selection is still a muddled mess.
That said, I do like the HEALTH cover of “Blue Monday” and the unexpected use of Depeche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel.”