When John Wick was first released in 2014, the world was introduced to a new kind of action film; R-rated, highly stylised, lots of subtlety and bags and bags of action. Since then, films like Kingsman (2015) and Deadpool have bravely followed in its footsteps, and now in 2017, a new entry has been made. John Wick Co-Director David Leitch has gone solo with Atomic Blonde and has taken a modern concept and thrust back into the past. With action bursting out of every frame, we find ourselves enjoying something that is inherently convoluted, but pays off handsomely overall.
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City (2012) by Anthony Johnston, writer Kurt Johnstad has created what most would want to call an action film, into a spy thriller, so the question is; is this move a good thing for the style and fun we have come to expect? Set in Berlin, 1989, we follow the events revolving around MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) attempting to retrieve a piece of microfilm containing the info on every undercover agent behind the Iron Curtain. After learning of her former agent/lover’s death, James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave), she and fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) must find the location of the list, before it ends up in the hands of the USSR. With players interfering with events, from MI6 superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) to CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), to a mysterious French woman (Sofia Boutella), Berlin is a bottle, waiting to pop. The characters of this story are rich in intrigue and mystery, but the overall style of the story is a little too complicated and full of so many twists and turns, it becomes a little ridiculous after a while, also the humour, drops dead every time to tries to make us laugh.
It is shame that this had to happen to the story, because I like the overall style of the film. David Leitch has already proven himself one of the best stuntmen in the business, and now as a director, has shown that he knows exactly, how to portray action on screen. He clearly knows that the story shouldn’t be devoid of emotion and drama, but must have enough opportunity to make the action worth it, in context to the events on screen. With this at hand, the cast can make a clear distinction on how their characters must behave in 1980’s Cold War Berlin. Charlize Theron has always been a great actress, but if performance in this proves anything, is that she is the queen of action on screen. Her duality of playing the subtle femme-fatale and a head-strong action oriented MI6 agent is the number one highlight of the whole film. She isn’t however the only one to make your head spin; James McAvoy brings a character that can only be described as a cross between Jason Bourne and Bruce Robertson (Filth (2013)), badass whilst still being a complete and utter ****.
If I’m honest, the whole cast of the film from Toby Jones to Sofia Boutella are wonderful to watch, but what I’m actually doing, is blathering. We all know what this film is all about; action and fighting. Like John Wick, this film has a hugely practical feel to how it has been made; proper choreography, no CGI gun battles, real cars being flipped over and blood and guts flying absolutely everywhere. Surprisingly, there are virtually no explosions or bombs going off in this film; remember, this is about espionage, David Leitch understands that not all action is explosions and CGI. The action in this is very realistic, all done by the actors themselves, and yet, it almost seems too cartoonish to be real, but it is; that is brilliant!
Atomic Blonde really does seem like a film that is style over substance, but, on this occasion, is isn’t a bad thing. The story and authenticity still takes precedent over everything else, even though the action is far more interesting than the story. As for authenticity, well that is a different story altogether. Just take the sound design for example; the ever-constant chatter of people and protestors about the demise of communism, the classic whip-pan sound effects of punches and things flying across rooms and even the subtler area of sound editing with using silence, echoes and radio chatter, helps us remind that there are two sides to this film; one loud and brash, the other more covert and secretive.
From listening to score and music, that seems to follow the same pattern as well. Tyler Bates, who previously scored both John Wick films has now moved onto Atomic Blonde and has opted for a radically different approach. There is a clear divide between the score and the soundtrack; Tyler Bates music is used very sparingly, very subtle and brilliant at setting the overall tone of Berlin; very still and very mysterious. As for the soundtrack; The Clash, Queen, David Bowie, Nena and George Michael bring out the more brash and lively side to the film. Like Baby Driver (2017), the songs propel the movie forwards, keeping the audience moving in the right direction and giving them something exciting to listen to, but because of the 80’s factor, it reminds them where the film is set; a blast from the past.
Though, not all of the past is necessarily as bright as the music makes it seem. Remember, this is Cold War Berlin on the eve of recovery; the buildings are all grey and sombre in their design, both on the eastern and western sides of the wall. Graffiti covers the wall itself and for some reason, on the inside of club toilets (I don’t really know why that is), there are cracks and decay on the inside of apartment buildings, it is a world that is falling apart. And yet, there is some form of divide here as well; brightly lit underground club scenes, the strangely blue ambience of Lorraine’s hotel room, the homely vibe of fellow agent’s rooms and the all too menacing design of the MI6 interrogation room. The divide in the production design is one of progress vs. the past, and that is the perfect scene for a story like this to take place, and theme that the audience is all to knowledgeable about today.
Strangely though it is not the production design that will dazzle the audience most of all; no, that would have to be the cinematography. John Wick cinematographer Jonathan Sela got off to a bad start this year with his flimsy performance on Transformers: The Last Knight, the less said about that the better. Now though, he has gone back to his creativity that he achieved on John Wick by combining the power of the Arri Alexa digital cinema camera, with Vintage 1970’s Hawk V-Lite lenses to create a certain level of nostalgia to the whole feel of the film. Weird hazes and fog shroud the streets of Berlin, the overall greyness of the light of the city, dimly lit, a world of shadow and street light, he has done everything to make this as artist and vivid as possible, and frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Then there this the overall edit of the film. Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir plays with the pace of the film beautifully; slowing things down, super imposing images together, speeding things up when the action starts and I would like to add, see if you can spot the amazing 10-minute-long shot within the film, cause trust me, it is worth a watch. Coupled with a menagerie of Stasi coats, club outfits, a million wigs and, well, German clothing, the overall look and feel of Atomic Blonde stands out like a sore thumb from the rest of the year; it is epic.
Atomic Blonde may not be as epic as it looks; the story needs some serious tweaking to be done to it, but it is such a blast, that it almost doesn’t matter. With a strong female lead and shock and awe action, it may not live up to its name, but it does live up to its reputation.
I give this film a 7/10.