The Good: Good acting, Good direction, Engaging plot, Good reversal
The Bad: Thinly-defined characters, Predictable plot progression/fight sequences
The Basics: Atomic Blonde might have burned itself up on the hype, leading to an under-performing opening weekend, but objectively viewed, it is an impressive film worth attention!
The prevailing wisdom in the world is that, given a choice between the two, a book is always better than the movie upon which it is based. There are exceptions to that rule, but often when they come up, the topic is hotly debated in fandom. A few months ago, I was drawn into watching the red band trailer for the film Atomic Blonde and the trailer was so compelling and intriguing that I hunted down the graphic novel upon which the film was based. The book, The Coldest City (reviewed here!), was insular, featured terrible artwork, and vastly prioritized the realism of its setting over the development of the characters involved. In fact, if anything, reading The Coldest City made me less excited about seeing Atomic Blonde.
Despite that, I eagerly attended an opening day showing of Atomic Blonde and the fact that it took me almost a full day to write my review speaks to the fact that the film has a density to it and requires some unpacking to truly appreciate it. In fact, Atomic Blonde is far better than its source material and it is a rare example of how those who are too tied to the original work upon which a film is based are likely to experience an initial disappointment with the movie.
Writer Kurt Johnstad adapted Atomic Blonde from The Coldest City and he found the absolute right balance of fidelity to the original work and fleshing the material out. The Coldest City is a short book - a fast read packed more with jargon than substance and development. Johnstad fleshes the bones of the book into a more-realized film by giving its protagonist, Lorraine Broughton, a genuine romantic relationship (Atomic Blonde is already being accused to having a gratuitous lesbian relationship, but the truth is Lorraine's relationship with Delphine allows Broughton to be humanized, fleshed out beyond her job and, frankly, is hardly as erotic as one might guess for having Charlize Theron naked) and fleshing out the film's primary antagonist with a truly brutal example of KGB tactics. Even better, Johnstad eliminates one of the fundamental problems with The Coldest City by referencing Satchel - the Soviet double-agent - immediately in the film (in the book, the first reference to Satchel comes perilously late in the narrative, creating an artificial and disturbingly forced reversal at the climax of the graphic novel).
The thing is, Johnstad's script is good, but it hinges upon the film's end because of the way director David Leitch directs the movie. Throughout Atomic Blonde, Johnstad gives obvious hints to how the book ended and it's tough to call it a "spoiler" as the book has been out for over five years. Leitch, however, insinuates the reversal at the end of the book through the alcohol in the film and as the film goes on, it is hard not to believe that the spies are not picking up on the Obvious Clue being left as to Satchel's identity. The reason that it took me so long to write my review of Atomic Blonde was that I spent much of the viewing annoyed at Leitch for directing the clue to Satchel's identity so obviously.
David Leitch, however, earns a lot of credit for his direction of Atomic Blonde; had I had faith that he was not simply telegraphing the end of the film, I would have enjoyed it quite a bit more. And there is a lot to enjoy in Atomic Blonde, but the film is a slow burn, the opposite of Wonder Woman (check out why I assert that film gets worse the more one deconstructs it here!) - Atomic Blonde gets better the more one considers it.
Set in November of 1989, Lorraine Broughton is called into MI-6 Headquarters for debriefing. There, she is interrogated by Eric Gray, while the C.I.A. observer Emmett Kurzfeld looks on and Broughton's boss, C, observes through a double-sided mirror and records the session. Ten days prior, Broughton was tasked with going to Berlin to recover the corpse of James Gasciogne, an MI-6 agent who was killed by a Soviet spy. Broughton is tasked with both recovering the corpse, under the alias of a lawyer working for the dead man's estate, and recovering a list that Gasciogne appeared to have died for; a list of every spy working in Berlin.
After arriving in Berlin and discovering her identity has already been compromised when the Soviets attempt to kill her, Broughton meets with the surviving MI-6 station officer in Berlin, David Percival. Percival is believed to have "gone native" and operates a black market in Berlin intended to destabilize East Berlin by exciting the youth culture there. It does not take long after Broughton arrives for the list to resurface, but the mission is complicated by Spyglass, an operative who has memorized the list and needs to be extracted from East Berlin, Soviet operatives attacking and a French spy who develops a quick, passionate, relationship with Broughton.
Atomic Blonde is a well-directed film and one of the aspects I particularly enjoyed about the movie was that it was violent without being overly gory. There are numerous occasions when two characters are in a life and death combat situation and Leitch puts one character's back to the camera and allows the brutality or kill shot to be obscured. The film is populated by fast punches, surprisingly limited blood splatter and when characters are, for example, shot in the head, it often happens at a distance that is anything but intimate, making the violence and the fighting much more entertaining than unsettling.
Music plays a big part of creating the atmosphere of 1989 Berlin (on both sides of the Wall). The soundtrack for Atomic Blonde is an impressive blend of period-specific songs and remixes/foreign language versions of the songs. Similarly, the costumes are impressive.
Far more than being a style film, Atomic Blonde does a good job of making Lorraine Broughton interesting to watch. Broughton is characterized as a tough, all-business spy, but she is humanized by her relationship with Delphine, the French spy. Broughton lets down her guard with Delphine and the relationship she develops with Delphine allows Broughton to see the potential life she could have outside spycraft. And Atomic Blonde might be impressively erotic (I suppose it is to some people), were Broughton not already pretty bruised by their first encounter.
Charlize Theron is entirely convincing as Lorraine Broughton. Theron sells her character's aliases and her efficient, professional, coldness - she is a viable spy. In fact, the moment Theron gets the viewer to fully invest in her character's abilities and competence is when Broughton sarcastically observes, "I can read a fucking map." In a world that predates smartphones and instant connectivity, Theron realistically portrays a human asset. Sofia Boutella is fine as Delphine Lasalle, but she plays Lasalle like a reluctant spy; a woman who wishes far more she took one of her other job options. Regardless, there is no hint of her character from Star Trek Beyond (reviewed here!) in her performance in Atomic Blonde.
James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, and Rolland Moller all give good supporting performances (though I spent much of Atomic Blonde thinking of Moller, "Sean Harris really has some range in this!") in Atomic Blonde. McAvoy is well-cast as the emotionally-confused Percival.
Ultimately, Atomic Blonde is an entertaining spy thriller that does a decent job of fleshing out a bare-bones idea in compelling ways, even though it still is somewhat plot-heavy and more concerned with action-adventure entertainment than making its protagonist truly well-rounded and compelling.
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Transformers: The Last Knight
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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