Flawed but unforgettable, Atomic Blonde is certainly something to see (and, albeit only intermittently, something to hear, too).
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Kurt Johnstad
With Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), James Faulker ('C'), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Moller (Aleksander Bremovych), and Johannes Haukur Johanneson (Yuri Bakhtin)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Atomic Blonde would be great—and I mean great, probably not quite a masterpiece, not with this screenplay, but more than just in greatness' ballpark—if only David Leitch had learned the right lessons from John Wick. Okay, that's not sporting. He learned one lesson pretty well, which was to not make the primary antagonist of your action film a nonthreatening pushover—though Blonde only solves that particular problem by skirting genres entirely and going all cloak-and-dagger on us, to the extent that Blonde doesn't actually have a primary antagonist for most of its runtime (or, if it does, the antagonist is simply the sad, ruthless universe in which its heroine exists).
Anyway, it helps to know that Leitch, famed stunt coordinator of the Matrix sequels, served alongside his longtime partner in practical action, Chad Stahleski, as the uncredited co-director on Wick; Blonde, it turns out, was what Leitch was getting up to while Stahleski was bringing John's Chapter 2 to life. (And, not to be that guy, but it turns out that Stahleski must have been the one who cared about the meticulous, quiet character-building in those films; I won't go as far as to say that Stahleski alone cared about world-building, but he is better at that, too.) To be fair to a man who's only got one credited feature to his name, though, the lesson Leitch didn't learn was one he wasn't apt to, because nobody called him on it at the time. The centerpiece sequence of Wick—which, in retrospect, turns out to bear Leitch's unmistakable fingerprints—can still be easily regarded as the best action scene in either Wick film, and, if you want to get down to it, it's one of the more popular choices for the best action setpiece of this whole decade.
That scene, of course, is the bathhouse shoothout, tracked to Kaleida's "Think," and it's a scene of enormous, mesmerizing beauty, with all its visual components—the stuntwork, obviously, but also John Sela's cinematography, Dan Leigh's production design, and Elisabet Ronaldsdottir's editing—matched to the exquisite, slow-burning beat of a half-ironic love song. Blonde is Leitch's grasping attempt, more-or-less, to make a whole movie out of scenes like that. And it makes even more sense when you realize that, in the co-directors' split—amicable, I presume?—Leitch got to keep Wick's editor, Ronaldsdottir, for his new film. (He also retained Sela as DP.) It's certainly telling that John Wick Chapter 2 doesn't even try to pull the same exact trick—even when you'd frankly expect it to.
Here's the problem, then: as good as that bathhouse scene is, it still isn't exactly perfect, and nobody ever told Leitch it wasn't. It comes down to what I have to imagine is a baffling misapprehension on Leitch's part about the way movies basically work: apparently, he does not know that when you score an action scene to a pop song, the pop song does not have to be treated as any old diegetic noise, and the rules that dictate what sounds we hear in a film (always a little bit expressionistic, even at their most realistically-accomplished), are not the same rules that govern sound in real life. So: in our Wick example, "Think" doesn't have to slam into silence just because we're cutting to an exterior location, but it does. In Blonde, "Blue Monday" doesn't have to shut down just because a car radio got smashed—but, again, it does. It's interesting sound design; but by "interesting" I mean "at least as frustrating as it is artful."
Multiple bathhouses mean a multiplied problem, and when nothing in Blonde totally matches the full-spectrum formal splendor of that sequence, it's bound to become very noticeable. It's a movie where nearly every action scene, no matter how radical (and they are, indeed, radical), winds up lurching around with all sorts of abrupt, misplaced momentum. And each time the movie settles into a wonderful little 80s pop groove (whether it's an action scene or not), Leitch and Ronaldsdottir are right there to pull you out, in case you might be enjoying it too much. It's genuinely bothersome: this movie is, hand to God, 90% of the way to being outright superb—effectively, the movie Baby Driver ought to have been, and with a playlist much more suited to my particular tastes—but Leitch won't slow down long enough to bring his own inspiration to full bloom. Honestly, as immensely likeable as Blonde's soundtrack is, you wonder if Leitch might've been better served with a more robust original score, from, say, Cliff Martinez, or Disasterpiece, or Anthony Gonzalez, or someone else with one foot in 80s retrowave—The Midnight could probably use the exposure. At least that way Leitch could've had a bespoke sound that fit itself organically to the beats of his action, rather than 30 year old pop standards of varying degrees of thematic resonance, all of which had to be reverse-engineered by someone who only partway understood how to do it.
Well! Considering that I've banged on for 1000 words about Blonde's editing and soundtrack, without mentioning the plot, or even a character's name, you can already guess that, even more than Wick before it, it's a movie whose surfaces overwhelm its substance. Still, it's nice to see that whatever else might separate them, Leitch and Stahleski do remain soulmates when it comes to how a movie ought to look, though I suppose Leitch is a little more in love with blaring, solid-color neon lighting than Stahleski. Cinematography by neon light, in fact, reaches an obsession in Blonde, to the point that even for a period piece that takes place in 1989, it feels like it actually must occupy an even-sleazier alternative history. I'll level with you: personally, I'm absolutely smitten with it. It helps that it's the only storytelling device in the whole thing that doesn't audibly grind its gears. (But then, the Warsaw Pact, as usual, is visibly much further from the sun than the West—Blonde's exterior scenes being shot in a one-size-fits-all steely-gray apocalypse. Still, this is so obligatory that I don't know what else Sela might have done in its place.)
So you can say Blonde and Wick Chapter 2 both represent the ongoing evolution of a fascinating aesthetic, each film taking it in only slightly different directions: after all, Leitch and Stahleski's shared predilection for a strongly-graphic style is essentially the justification for all three of their movies existing. And Blonde can compete right on Chapter 2's level for the potency of its individual images: from our heroine emerging bruised and battered from the bluest icewater bath in film history to a pair of silhouettes duelling against the backside of a movie screen (playing Tarkovsky's Stalker, of course, to remind you that that Leitch's intention, like Stahleski's, is to basically make an art film out of punching and kicking). But what sears itself into your memory is Charlize Theron's face turned into a battleground for blue and pink neon light; it happens a lot. Only a little more often than Blonde's lovely, lissome ladies get naked.
That's a double-edged sword: it fits in ideally with Leitch's pop-art spectacle; it fits the period pretense too (what adjective better describes the 80s than "sleazy"?); and there's a weak but cogent argument to be made that the couture (slinky dresses to lingerie to designer coats) in which costume designer Cindy Evans armors Theron is, fundamentally, just a distaff version of John Wick's perfect suits. But this is a male gaze movie; let's not fool ourselves. There's even what I think might be a shout-out to the climax of De Palma's Blow Out; it is, at least, extraordinarily De Palmian in its bracing sex-and-violence style.
I'm okay with that. Maybe you're not. That's okay too. But Blonde is about physicality, if it's about anything—maybe ironically, the Leitch movie with the female lead is significantly less dancelike in its violence—and it certainly gives Theron the chance to reaffirm her action hero bona fides. It's unafraid to ugly her up when she gets pummeled, and unafraid to let her pummel, which she does often. If you squint, you can see why Theron (a producer here) was attracted to the project, even in what sometimes feels like an absence of a final draft of any script: it lets her do everything her body is capable of.
So let's finally nod in direction of that script (even if, candidly, I'd rather not): Theron plays Lorraine, an MI6 agent sent to East Berlin just days before Cold War games are to be rendered irrelevant, in order to recover a list with all the agents on it—shades of Mission: Impossible—and, I'm sorry, one more thing before we do the plot itself. Let me just mention the most objectively detestable thing about Blonde, which is its credits font, a sort of spraypainted-on thing (complete with a Goddamned sound effect). It comes back to haunt us when Leitch wants to let us know he's moved locations—and by that I mean when Leitch feels like letting us know he's moved locations, which is a problem, because he doesn't do it every time, so I spent a great deal of the movie only kind of half-aware of the story's political geography.
But this could also be because Blonde's story is boring, especially during its ramp-up, which feels like a dull Le Carre adaptation (I specify, just in case there is another kind), and one with especially muddled stakes and motivations: Lorraine meets with her contact, Percival, a British agent who's gone "feral" in the Eastern Bloc, and, together and separately, they navigate an obscure world without rules or trust. This is, naturally, all related in flashback—a tale retold as part of Lorraine's debriefing back in London—and one sits there convinced, for the first 100 minutes of this two hour picture, that this structural trick takes more away from the mood than it ever gives in return. (ETA, 5/16/2018: it bears pointing out, however, that this is far more the case on a first watch than a second.)
The mood, though, does survive; characterization, not so much. This is one of those chilly spy movies where the hero is an irretrievable cipher; one imagines the idea was to do Lady Bond with Matrix Stunts—although Bond works, when Bond works, mostly because Bond is either loopy and stupid and fun, or because they're actively subverting an icon. Thus, there's not much to latch onto emotionally in Blonde's spycraft: not the dead agent, or the lesbian tryst, or the obvious first twist, or the almost-as-obvious, but satisfying, second twist. There's even a third fucking twist, and while this has the benefit of being surprising, it reeks of a screenwriter who realized the audience would get ahead of him, and was unwilling to take the win on somebody else's terms. Nobody's praising Kurt Johnstad's adaptation of the comic (Coldest City, by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart), and for good reason. It is, however, perhaps too much to crucify him for it, at least just yet—Blonde's a movie that could very much do with a second spin, after all. (ETA: I was absolutely right about that.) There's the real possibility that, as a medium-difficulty puzzlebox, it could come into its own the second time around. It's even more likely that Theron's subtle-to-a-fault performance as our unthawed ice queen could turn out much more rewarding than it seems at first glance.
And, for all that I've complained, Leitch has made a film worth watching twice, or more: the action scenes are dynamite, and it really is probably in Leitch's best interest that he backloads them, along with the more-interesting plot developments. The turning point is stupidly easy to identify: it's when Leitch pulls out a long-take fight on a stairway that becomes (without ever explicitly blinking) a long-take car chase—and it is, pretty handily, the best-choreographed fight in an American action movie in... I don't know. Ever. It is, in any event, definitely the best stairway scene. (Maybe it's worth pointing out that the only sense of humor Blonde has at all comes wrapped inside its bone-crunching violence—but it's a funny sense of humor, anyway.) Meanwhile, whatever else Theron is doing (or not doing), she is an amazing stuntwoman for a 41 year-old actor who, Aeon Flux obviously notwithstanding, only really just started doing this kind of thing a couple of years ago. You suddenly get the impression—and not an unpleasant one!—that the two-hour Blonde feature film exists almost entirely to serve as the container for a legendary fifteen-minute short film.
...Then Flock of Seagulls comes on the radio and, yes, it ends too early. So it goes. Atomic Blonde makes itself hard to love, but despite its coldness and its jaggedness, I do love it anyway.