We now live in a post John Wick world. One where the term “gun-fu” has planted its feet with the amount of carnage an action thriller of that caliber leaves in its destructive wake. Highly praised for its stylistic approach to these expertly choreographed action sequences which is where the term got its name from, the original is the subject for many imitators to take the adrenaline and pump it into a new universe. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Atomic Blonde by director David Leitch, who co-directed the first John Wick in an uncredited capacity emulates the success of the boogeyman.
With Leitch firmly in the driver’s seat for Atomic Blonde, the seasoned stuntman puts the action on a pedestal – every bullet fired, punch thrown, in adamant object broken over a back or a face is done so with purpose, to carry a shaky narrative across its finish line. Adapted by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad off of The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Johnstad puts the substance where it matters most – in the struggle between two people in a kill or be killed world of spy games.
On the narrative side of the coin, Atomic Blonde follows MI6 field agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) during the final days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Her mission is to retrieve a macguffin known as ‘the list’ which contains the names of every intelligence agent on both sides of the wall. Within the convolution, Lorraine is tasked by her superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and C (James Faulkner) to find and destroy a double agent known only as Satchel. Derivative as it is, Atomic Blonde keeps its energy through the highly engaging ass kicking rampage Theron’s character gets thrust into. If anyone could do it besides Reeves, its Theron giving in to a natural ferocity not many can pull off.
To set the mood, Leitch’s film is given a blue wash over the lens of Jonathan Sela’s cinematography. The atmosphere is bleak and somber and the sun-less weather all but confirms that. But within the gloom and constant rain of the environment, Atomic Blonde is a visual feast – certain colors like reds, whites and yellows pop against the gray and blue backdrops. The shadowy contrast is Leitch’s strength in composing a set piece full of pulse pounding action. Nothing says an action scene is about to pop off than the two or more characters taking part covered in darkness against a colorful background.
Taking place during the final year of the 1980’s, there’s a different tone that gets established early on, following the entirety of the 115 minute runtime. Im talking about the cultural explosion from the fashion to the nightlife and most importantly the music. I would love to know the music budget of this film – music supervisors and clearance personnel John Houlihan and Willa Yudell transport us back in time with the selection of music. Music is everywhere – it’s the beating heart of Berlin’s underground scene that Lorraine infiltrates and David Percival (James McAvoy), her Berlin MI6 contact has taken over in his undercover work.
From The Clash, to Public Enemy to Depeche Mode David Bowie and Queen, the selection is top notch – it’s a soundtrack that has repeat value well after the film ends.
As the lead, Theron is a force of nature, turning on the charm when she needs to but showing restraint and apathy to create a fully engrossing lead heroine. She’d a one-woman wrecking crew turning Berlin upside down. With an ensemble cast full of talent in supporting roles, Theron outshines them all even with paper thin development. Names like Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, and John Goodman all bring nuance to their characters but are relegated to the background while Theron’s Lorraine handles majority of the heavy lifting. Theron channels her inner Ellen Ripley and Sarah Conners when it comes time to kicking ass and taking names.
Every fight has purpose to the narrative that Johnstad outlines in his screenplay that are ripped from the pages of its source material. Action is given emphasis through the steady camera work by Sela – you couldn’t find a shaky out of frame shot if you tried to – professional stuntmen know how to get the biggest impact from an action sequence. Just like John Wick an action scene stands out with the right people calling the shots and setting the choreography. Leitch is in total control of these sequences making Atomic Blonde look more like a dance number with a barrage of bullets and sharp objects flying through the air at any given time. Anything can be used as a weapon; the production design from David Scheunemann features full on no holds barred brutality from every character on screen. No location is left unscathed by the wrath of Lorraine.
With more focus placed on delivering style over substance, Atomic Blonde still packs a bone crushing punch from a powerhouse performance by Charlize Theron to fully stay engaged with. Immediately director David Leitch sets the tone and atmosphere to be an unrelenting, brutal and sexy thrill ride from start to finish. If John Wick was the first to start a new sub genre of action fare, Atomic Blonde is another step in the right direction. Theron in her performance looks like a natural as she uses any object at her disposal that causes pain to anyone who gets in her way.
Screenplay By: Kurt Johnstad
Directed By: David Leitch
Music By: Tyler Bates
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones
Edited By: Elisabet Ronaldsdóttir
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Running Time: 1 Hour 55 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%
Based On: The Coldest City by Antony Johnston & Sam Hart