23 August 2017

Atomic Blonde review

It might be tempting to call Atomic Blonde "the female John Wick" thanks to its stylish, well-choreographed action and the fact that the two share a director in David Leitch, but it's also a description that is going to see people entering the cinema wildly misled about what kind of film it really is. Yes, Atomic Blonde's particular brand of action can't help but feel reminiscent of that in John Wick - but where John Wick offers a lean, straightforward action flick, Atomic Blonde is instead a constantly twisting spy thriller focused more on the ever-increasing complexity of its plot than being an entertaining action film.

Set around the fall of the Berlin Wall, we follow MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton as she travels to Berlin in order to retrieve a microfilm that contains the details of all the spies working in Berlin at that time. The microfilm reportedly contains the identity of "Satchel", a mysterious double-agent who has been a thorn in the side of MI6 for years - naturally then, there are a great many people who want to use that information to their advantage, only making Lorraine's mission all the more dangerous.

While that may sound simple enough, Atomic Blonde is actually anything but, and that's quite easily its biggest downfall. "Convoluted" doesn't do it justice - come the end of Atomic Blonde I was none the wiser about what had actually happened in Berlin or why, thanks mainly to the films deliberate obfuscation of what any of its characters' motivations are and a framing device that only adds further question marks to the events that we do see. In some films, deliberately leaning into that kind of confusion can work wonders - here, it just left me dissatisfied and annoyed, especially because of how smug Atomic Blonde is about the whole thing. There are lots of films that think they're smarter than they are - there are few that so thoroughly disappear up their own backside.

And unfortunately, that can't help but have a pretty big negative impact on everything else. From a film-making perspective, the action scenes are better than average throughout thanks to the kind of choreography and clarity that made John Wick the breath of fresh air it was, but they also feel frustratingly inconsequential thanks to the lack of understanding about why they're even happening. There's just one action scene in the entire film where we have a clear idea of what the stakes are and whose side everyone is on when it actually happens - I don't think it's a coincidence that this is also the only time that the action genuinely feels exciting, rather than just looking impressive. It's also the only time that Atomic Blonde really starts to justify its ticket price  - despite my feelings towards the film as a whole, I have to admit that it's one hell of a great action scene, the kind that will probably be held up in the future as an example of how this kind of thing is meant to be done.

On top of that, Atomic Blonde's inability to engage its audience through either its story or its characters means that the almost aggressively prominent, hyper-stylised aesthetic it's going for wears pretty thin pretty quickly. It's a good looking film for the most part, but it suffers from what I can only describe as the Suicide Squad effect - there are so many needle-drops in such a short amount of time that it becomes annoying rather than enjoyable, and by the time a slow, sad rendition of Nena's "99 Red Balloons" start playing, the whole thing has devolved into self-parody. In that sense and others, Atomic Blonde feels like a film that spent far too long being tweaked and touched up in post-production - there's a lack of restraint surrounding the whole thing that, at least to me, screams of someone being unable to drag themselves away from the editing room without adding just one more thing.

Which means that other than that one aforementioned doozy of an action scene and great performances from Charlize Theron and James McAvoy (each of whom bring far more to their character than the script alone would indicate), Atomic Blonde simply has very little to offer its audience, despite the vast amount of potential that you can actually feel being wasted as the film progresses. It might seem too early to say which of John Wick's two directors is the one most worth keeping an eye on given that they've only released one film each, but after seeing both this and Chad Stahelski's brilliant John Wick: Chapter 2? Well, I know who I'll be following from here on out.

2 stars

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