Atomic Blonde

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

Though never as acclaimed as last week's Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde is an equally impressive film that has been undeservedly underrated by the cinema intelligentsia. Christian Tesfaye awards 7 out of 10 stars.

Great action movies are not for the faint-hearted.

But action movies do not come around that often – so the timid have little to fear. We are usually bombarded with violent images: car crashes, explosions and much too many gun fights. The violence, in most cases though, is mild. The protagonists usually never catch a bullet, explosions and car crashes are too glittery to persuade. Villains and minions that die in their hundreds are treated as nothing more than inanimate props whose death is expected to inspire joy instead of melancholy.

Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie that saturated many appetites. The film was not perfect, but it had gravitas as an action movie and gave us actors that feel, hurt and sometimes even lose. The action sequences were long and gut wrenching – exuding a fiery feel thanks to director George Miller’s sharp eye for atmospheric set pieces. Fury Road will be held as the highest level of artistry action movies will be expected to maintain, for some time to come.

And good action movies seem to be flowing in the direction of Charlize Theron. The South African actress played Imperator Furiosa in Fury Road, a character just as furious as her name implies. What was surprising was that Theron is not known for such types of movies. When one thinks of female action stars, one usually comes up with the likes of Angelina Jolie or Sigourney Weaver. I did not even know Theron could lift her legs that high or punch that devastatingly.

In Atomic Blonde, Theron finds herself in the middle of Berlin as a character by the name of Lorraine Broughton. Broughton is a British MI6 agent sent to Berlin to recover a list containing the names of all British spies operating in the Soviet Union.

The film takes place in an alternate time line. It is explained early on that in the universe of Atomic Blonde, for some reason, the Berlin Wall never came down. The Cold War is still raging, and the Soviet Union still survives, albeit in tatters in comparison to the Stalin era glory.

Broughton’s mission is to meet up with another field agent in Berlin called David Percival (James McAvoy). Together they are expected to recover the list. But Broughton has another mission, to uncover a double agent by the name of Satchel, who has betrayed the British side by selling secrets to the Russians. Broughton starts to suspect Percival may be Satchel. The Russian Stasi (Eddie Marsan) who stole the list further complicates the issue.

The film is directed by David Leitch, one-half of the directors that were behind John Wick, a movie that was as merciless as it was entertaining. It is usually writers, directors and cinematographers who cross over into directing, but Leitch never served in any of those positions. He was a stunt-double who doubled for stars like Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme, carrying out stunts for actors movie studios find too valuable to jeopardise to a calculated car crash gone wrong.

John Wick, which Leitch directed with another stuntman, Chad Stahelski, is the perfect precursor to Atomic Blonde. The movies show continuity, and continuity shows a sense of style – high currency in the world of cinema. Leitch prefers settings that seem sketchy, that are hidden away from the general public and have a conspiratorial feel. He finds the atmosphere of the underground attractive, as an environment that is perhaps more interesting and significant to world events than what takes place in public offices of high importance.

But Leitch’s strength lies in his sharp eye for good action. Not everything that takes place in Atomic Blonde is impressive, but a sequence close to the third act, where Broughton tries to escort the Stasi defector, is mind-numbingly brilliant. The scene is a very long uninterrupted action sequence that involves insanely high-octane fight scenes that must have been exceptionally hard to film. It could have only been filmed with explicit military determination by the crew and cast, and a touch of good old visual effects. The film should be viewed if only for those 10 to 15 minutes of pure cinematic joy.

Theron does a better job in fight scenes than I could have ever expected. Her face is usually visible in most action sequences which, although computer generated images have reached extraordinary levels, I believe means that Theron has done most of her own stunt work. The actress is totally believable as Broughton, a woman of extreme intelligence, physical dexterity and passions. James McAvoy too is exceptional as Percival. He is the essence of cool while smoking, getting angry or being seduced.

If there is something important I have learned in the three years I have been critiquing movies, it is that expectations have to be managed. I went to Matti Cinema last week expecting to be fascinated by Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, one of the year’s most acclaimed movies. I came out impressed by the effect crowd mentality could have on professional critics.

I went to the same multiplex expecting mediocrity, with some good acting, from Atomic Blonde. I came out baffled at how so many could miss Atomic Blonde’s cleverness.

Published on Aug 18,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 903]



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