Armani Barron and Alex Kirschenbaum dissect whether or not the sleekly-marketed Charlize Theron retro-spy adventure “Atomic Blonde” is actually cool… or if it was all just a disappointing tease (the name of this post might tip you off about which way we’re leaning).
Alex: AND SO.
Let’s just start with the ending and work our way backwards. Because the ending more or less destroyed this movie for me.
Up until then, things were humming along pleasantly enough. Red flag, though: I felt fairly emotionally removed from the proceedings, even at that point. The Charlize Theron character was hard to really know, she was just a seemingly-British bad-ass killing machine that we knew would survive all of the conflicts she was recalling in her exit interview with British Intelligence. And outside of the comely French spy stationed in Berlin (Sophia Boutella), I found myself actively disliking and distrusting every other figure in the story. Though that may have been the goal of Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay, it certainly didn’t make for a particularly engaging movie.
So, I was already heading into the movie’s final half hour at a bit of a wary distance. But the ending killed any good will lingering from the atmospheric ’80s music, sleek nocturnal neon set pieces or bravura action choreography from (uncredited) “John Wick” co-director David Leitch.
Because the ending was SO DUMB it boggles the mind.
Basically, if I’m interpreting the events of the movie’s messy, cluttered final gasps correctly, Charlize Theron was a triple-agent: an American agent, pretending to be a Russian sleeper-cell agent masquerading as a British agent. So how long was she pretending to be a Russian sleeper-cell agent, exactly? How could M:I-6, the ultra-sophisticated British secret intelligence system, not recognize at least one of these two levels of deceit?
Armani: To be honest the entire movie was so draining via its meandering plot and seemingly pointless double crossing. The confusing storyline made the action sequences felt like more of a time out than the dialogue scenes did. Despite how sleek the movie appeared, I couldn’t get over how convoluted the plot was.
To be honest, I still don’t really know what the conflict was. What are spies really accomplishing while spying on each other, if the only intel they provide later is who other spies are? No one is actually doing anything but stalking each other. What was Sophia Boutella’s objective while in Berlin? Literally nothing but sit around and spy on other people. SPIES! I suppose you could say that the movie was about finding a master list of spies (honestly, if you’re a good spy, how does this list even exist?), but even so, if all of the spies can recognize each other or immediately tell that someone is a spy then what is the point?? It just reminded me of “Rush Hour 3,” but instead of the list being tattooed on someone’s head it was a clunky watch.
Now to the ending. In no way was the audience invested in James McAvoy’s character, David Percival. To be honest, I wasn’t rooting for anyway except for Sophia Boutella’s character to just get the hell away from everyone else. Also, did you feel like that final scene in Paris should have been at the beginning? When she double crosses that man (no idea what his name is) and escapes the hotel room I was so over everything that I was willing to pack up without ever knowing the actual ending.
Buttt let’s rewind a bit to things I enjoyed. Charlize Theron kicked ass in this movie. “Atomic Blonde” was marketed heavily on the aftermath of girl power movies like “Wonder Woman” so it was pretty sweet to see a female John Wick onscreen (not ignoring Angelina Jolie in “Salt” or Charlize Theron’s appearance in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” or other Bad B*** roles).
Also touching on the 80’s soundtrack…they know there were more than 5 songs in the 80’s right?
Alex: I am so glad we’re on the same page. This thing got generally favorable reviews, which stunned the fuck out of me.
The fact that everyone knew everyone else was some level of spy certainly kind of defeated the point of their being spies in the first place. Or at the very least highlighted the fact that none of them were particularly good at a big part of their jobs, which is, you know, being secretive. There was so much duplicity all over the place that it was tough to keep track of who was betraying whom, especially since the movie itself took pains to disguise a few characters’ real identities and relationships until the very end anyway. It’s hard to care about anyone when we don’t know who anyone really is.
I think Boutella, like Charlize’s British agent persona, Lorraine (which we came to learn later was just the first layer of a triple-layered character onion), was there on a recon mission for the list specifically, right? But her precise allegiance to David Percival — and subsequent betrayal, I guess? — is pretty vague. As is his motivation for killing her if he is, in fact, NOT the informant to the Russians. Which he isn’t, because that’s Charlize Theron. WHICH SHE ISN’T, because she’s secretly a TRIPLE AGENT, working for the Americans, pretending to be a British agent pretending to be a Russian agent. Fuck.
Anyway, Boutella’s character was the only one who seemed remotely human and interesting, so I was more drawn to her for sure.
That main conflict of trying to retrieve the top-secret list of spies is (a) annoying, I agree (like you say — if the spies involved are so great, how does this spy encyclopedia even exist?), and (b) hardly an original spy-movie story trope anyway (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” was the most recent movie example with this set-up that I can think of). The fact that the movie was set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, doesn’t feel so much like a necessity of the muddied plot as it does a flippant production/soundtrack design attribute. It’s as if the two authors of the original comic book, “The Coldest War,” Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, said to themselves, “How can we cram as many New Order and Flock of Seagulls song into this story as possible?”
“Atomic Blonde” reminded me a lot more of “John Wick Chapter 2” than “John Wick,” in that it was massively disappointing. “John Wick” was actually pretty sweet. I think my all-time Bad B*** movies are probably “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” I didn’t buy Angelina Jolie in “Salt” (I also thought that movie was just kind of a mess), but she crushed it in “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” for sure. Charlize Theron is a great actress, equally adept at comic work (“Arrested Development” is probably my favorite of her comedy acting) and dramatic stuff (“Monster,” anyone?). She certainly looks physically capable of beating up a ton of much brawnier baddies with those deadly high heels, no complaints there. But this feels like a movie begging to have been a music video. It would have made for one hell of a music video.
Armani: Dude you nailed it. They had the nerve to give us TWO different renditions of “99 Red Balloons.”
I was actually interested to get more information about the Berlin Wall coming down, especially since movies (at least, English-language movies that I am aware of) rarely give the perspective of an Average (Spy) Joe during a time like that. The movie does very little with the Berlin Wall backdrop, and really only brings it back up when the plot calls for it (e.g. when Charlize Theron needs cover, a crowd of marchers uses umbrellas to cover her from snipers; when there are gunshots every where people just think it’s fire works). I left the theater knowing less about the history of 1989 Berlin and more about what Sophia Boutella looks like in lingerie, which TBH isn’t a terrible loss, but I digress.
ALSO. If Percival and Lorraine knew they wanted to kill each other the whole move they had A MILLION OPPORTUNITIES to do so. They were alone together all the time. They did not need each other.
I just want to circle back to one thing. Although it was marked as a “girl power movie,” it came up woefully short on that front, too. Aside from Charlize being the hero who happened to be a woman, it really wasn’t that progressive. All the people in power are men. Charlize fights men the whole movie. To be honest she’s the only woman with any agency because Sophia B is just there to be hot and die. I’m glad that studios are starting to realize the value of a woman led action flick, but not a fan of false progress.
Alex: Yeah what the heck is with the generally positive notices from critics? Metacritic, at 63%, is at least a bit more muted. I’d give it ** stars (i.e. it’s bad).
To your Boutella point, I guess was happy to know what The Hot Mummy looked like in lingerie.
ALSO, I totally forgot that Leitch and co. used two versions of “99 Red Balloons!!” So “Watchmen”-core of them.