See I guess it goes like this. David Leitch co-directs John Wick (uncredited though) with Chad Stahelski. Around the same time Charlize Theron is coming off filming Mad Max: Fury Road and now she got the hard proof of her action chops she moves into production of an adaptation of The Coldest City, a passion project that she’d been chasing for a while. She poaches Leitch from John Wick 2 and the two projects start shooting within basically a month of each other. They’re like legitimately, duelling pictures.
It would be nice if they were both great. Unfortunately, aside from one truly outstanding fight sequence it’s kind of a disaster. I say outstanding fight sequence, it’s okay, one of those real self-indulgent long take type deals which, while it could be congratulated on its restraint, would be far more so if it could be bothered to shed its own artifice. We’re all very impressed, get back to making your movie.
Theron is some MI6 superspy, we meet her in London, part of an icy briefing to bring to a close her assignment which appears to have gone disastrously. It’s 1989 and the Berlin Wall is about to fall. Floating around the wintery Berlin streets is a microfilm containing the identities of every still active soviet agent and Lorraine, as her character is called, is tasked with tracking the thing down.
First step, she’s told, make contact with deep cover operative James Percival (James McAvoy, who’s keeping up his string of unpleasant weird guy roles). He’s supposed to be helping her but the dude seems shifty enough and there’s a double agent on the loose. Oh and there’s a French presence, an American one, and the Soviets themselves are sweeping the area so she goes ahead and makes her own luck.
From there the plot devolves into a sticky mess of shifting allegiances, double crosses and paranoid machinations which, if they make any sense on paper, precious little of it translates to the screen. Like, I can get the basics, string myself along from fight to fight quite nicely, as all these hidden conflicts are eventually going to resolve down into a punch to the face or a bullet from a gun. But there’s this thing at the end which I think is supposed to be a twist, but falls out into the audience’s lap because I thought it was information we already knew and even then I weren’t too sure what it meant.
I don’t really want to lay the blame right down on one thing here, as there’s a few that be going wrong, but jeez is the style of this film one massive distraction. I’m talking every single bit of it. Jonathan Sela’s cinematography for a start is a nightmare, taking the hazy glow, the saturated monotones, the inventive framings of the original John Wick and ramping them up to something that comes across as simply unpleasant to watch. Y’all get the sense that editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir is trying her level best but there ain’t no way too much of this can be cut together coherently.
Then you got all this hyperactive production design, not to say I don’t love the fetish aesthetic that everyone be got going on in this movie but it just bounces off these overstacked sets and whatever song’s been dropped on this real insistent soundtrack. It’s impossible to concentrate on literally anything because film ain’t content to just relax into itself and have just one thing going on. When the focus ain’t on a fight it feels so scared that our attention might wander that it throws all this shit in our face to make sure we’re on board.
It don’t gotta worry about that, we are. For all the problems that the script gifts them Theron and McAvoy are these real engaging screen presences. John Goodman and Toby Jones take the other side of the table in the interrogation scenes too so there ain’t no chance of us falling asleep there. I’m just not sure why it comes across so desperate, it has every reason to be self-assured but it acts so needy.
I’m not sure exactly what it wants its style to be, it certainly ain’t coherent. Like it’ll bounce between this admiration of low-fi eighties spy tech and then the next moment use its contemporary hyperreal lens to be all like, ‘fuck that old shit, it the now which is cool.’ Like, when John Wick 2 came out earlier this year I was all about how gloriously camp it was happy making its world. It feels like the defining authorial thrust leading the conception of Atomic Blonde was ‘awesome’. It don’t matter what or how they achieve that, but it gotta be 100% all the time.
Which actually works in the film’s advantage at times. The character of Lorraine for example, she’s this openly, happily bisexual woman who totally at ease with her sexuality. There’s also the commitment here to have the characters wear the scars of their battles through the running time, when the film opens on Theron just returned back from the mission it’s this real image. Her scarring is not a sign of her weakness, or her shame, but her extraordinary skill. She might be the best working actor at performing pain.
Again to her advantage, because these aren’t the slick secure fights we get in Wick, these are scrappy and dangerous. At those point when the camera and lighting can actually get over itself for just one moment it actually starts feeling appropriate. Then there’s something like the setpiece chase through a cinema playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker which is a very art-cinema cool. Unless, perhaps, you know Stalker came out in 1979. Ten years before the film is set and suddenly the artifice looms large.
It wants to be a great film and there’s sparks of it in there. It’s just trying way, way too hard.
Atomic Blonde is currently screening in UK cinemas.