ATOMIC BLONDE Review
Director: David Letich
Genre: Action, Espionage
Ah, the ‘80s, a decade as carelessly bastardized as Asian cuisine. From the pulsating beats of synthpop, to the neon glow of feverishly sexy discos, the 2010s have become somewhat enamored with an aesthetic reach around for an era mostly lathered in cocaine and glam metal. It happened somewhere after the release of DRIVE, and I can’t fault anyone for it catching on. It’s dastardly cool—both grimy and chic all at once. But with so much style, filmmakers have forgotten to make us actually care about anything—KUNG FURY sends its greetings. Cue ATOMIC BLONDE, David Leitch’s follow up to 2014’s Keanu Reeves’s revival, JOHN WICK, and yet another entry in nostalgia; for communism this time… I don’t know, man.
Set against the backdrop of east and west Germany, ATOMIC BLONDE has opted against the clandestine milieu of the Reeves’s universe, engaging in more traditional espionage fare: think a middle ground between James Bond and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. The setting is simple enough, but the potential of playing with the quirks of two borders, opposing political views, and multiple languages are infinite, especially in espionage. Yes, Leitch has thrown us to the ‘80s again, but this time it seemed like there was method to the madness! Just as always, there ain’t no Twisted Sister in this flick—you’ll find that in THE EMOJI MOVIE in its stead—Leitch’s vehicle is driven entirely by the tunes of east Germany’s counter-culture movement. So how is the bloc party? Well, ATOMIC BLONDE is rough, tough, Wick-esque (we can say that now, right?), and… boring?
Sadly enough, I’m not being facetious. ATOMIC BLONDE is really that tepid. Shockingly so, in fact. I don’t care how much Depeche Mode or Nena you pump into your action film, the overuse of non-diegetic to diegetic needle drops to mask the dull expository scenes not only doesn’t work, it isn’t used in an interesting manner. In fact, ATOMIC BLONDE’s trailer does a better job syncing action with music than any scene in the final film; and I can’t forgive Leitch for making this mistake, because he did it exquisitely in JOHN WICK.
Or do we have Chad Stahelski to thank for that?
I really don’t like harping on a film’s trailer in a review because with time that trailer will expire, but ATOMIC BLONDE really doesn’t have a lot of tricks up its sleeve, doubly so when compared to its peers. if one obnoxious, albeit cool, John Woo-esque oner is your only calling card, then you’re really not doing too hot. And I get it, ATOMIC BLONDE is cool because it shows exhaustion, and the visceral intensity of hand-to-hand combat. Sure, that’s invigorating, and it’s obviously leagues ahead of your average superhero film in terms of sheer viscera, but I also know that Leitch and co. can make a much, much better action film.
Which brings me back to the story, something that has admittedly been smack-talked a little more than necessary. It’s really not even half as confusing as people make it out to be, but that doesn’t make it good, either. In short, ATOMIC BLONDE is just APOCALYPSE NOW with some espionage components. And yes, it’s dumb, but nobody cares about the story, so let’s move on. The fact of the matter remains that between the stairwell fight and two-to-three chase sequences, there’s virtually nothing to see here. Literally the only inventive idea involves somebody accidentally digging a knife deeper into their back when they rest against a wall after a brutal brawl. And that’s really disappointing, because this was among my most anticipated films of the summer.
And then there’s Theron’s performance. I really love this woman. She’s a phenomenal lead in almost everything she does, but this is such a phoned-in “ruthless spy” performance; part Daniel Craig’s Bond, part angsty superhero. Saying that she’s “cool” really isn’t all that true. She gets one brief moment of transcendent vulnerability, but it’s cut short by constantly making her talk like someone emotionally disengaged from the plot. And why is she so cold? Isn’t this in part a quest for vengeance? Is this a revenge film or not? If yes, give us catharsis, because ATOMIC BLONDE makes all the wrong moves in who kills who and how they are disposed of.
MFW McAvoy takes care of vengeance for me
Not to bring JOHN WICK back into this (I really don’t have much of a choice though), but… what makes Reeves so compelling is that the death of his wife, and more importantly, dog, really set a tone for the softie at heart. I don’t really get who this woman is; she’s so cool for school that she’s honestly not that fun to watch. To put it bluntly, I feel like we’re all projecting our love for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD’s Imperator Furiosa on Theron whenever we see her now, because this is in no capacity an interesting character.
But I don’t want to blame this all on Theron, either. I’m sure that despite Keanu Reeves’s upper hand in physical training, she can hold her own on screen (JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 made Common a good fighter, after all). When all is said and done, this is a supremely dull experience regardless of Theron’s presence. It’s a film that just chugs along at a weird, off-beat pace, meandering through conversations to mask that this makes TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY feel like xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is great because its action scenes flow in and out of one another with little to no breathing room; it’s so propulsive that we don’t realize that it’s actually 10 minutes longer than ATOMIC BLONDE. To make matters worse, ATOMIC BLONDE intercuts everything with the dumbest Keyzer Soze riff you’ll see all year, really slowing down what could easily be a breezy 90 minutes. The video-game-like assassin world of both John Wick films is also exponentially more exciting, but that doesn’t absolve ATOMIC BLONDE from failing to capitalize on its niche milieu: that of a split Germany.
Ruski, Deutsch, who cares!
Unfortunately, I’m not being flippant: BRIDGE OF SPIES shouldn’t be the more tense border-crossing film between these two. This is doubly disappointing when you realize that ATOMIC BLONDE is among the less insufferable ‘80s nostalgia pictures of late, but it really stops to matter because, apart from the music selection, it’s almost like the film forgets that it’s set in this decade entirely. The distinctions between east and west Germany are so minimal here and so irrelevant that it completely stops to matter what side of the wall this action is happening on.
For a film whose narrative crux is the fall of the Soviet Union, you’d think there’d be more focus on where we want to go and how we will get there. But instead, ATOMIC BLONDE boasts the absolute worst German you’ll ever hear in cinema history. The grammatical errors at play are so pathetic that I started thinking this was a Vimeo short made by a group of really ambitious college freshmen. Seriously, if your German lawmen are saying “DDR” incorrectly, you’ve got a problem.
And I admit that this is all a tad bit aggressive, but the only cause for my chagrin is the fact that Leitch is such a talented action director. Clearly the writing of ATOMIC BLONDE and the actual production of it occurred with little-to-no creative communication. The dissonance is palpable here. I understand that Leitch wanted to make a fun action romp first and foremost, but neither his setting nor his character are holistically incorporated into the world he has made. Everything feels like an aesthetic prop to distinguish the film from a dozen other blockbusters in the multiplex, and that feels cheaply irresponsible for a director who’s been granted the opportunity to tell a bare-knuckled action brawler about one of history’s most geopolitically complex eras.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend