Charlie Gearon reviews Atomic Blonde – David Leitch’s most recent feature.
With the recent release of Katherine Bigelow’s Detroit, critical discussions have centred around the idea of necessity.
Critics would be hard pressed to label this film as a ‘necessary’
On the one hand, Justin Chang wrote for the LA Times that it was an ‘entirely necessary new film’, praising its unflinching look at difficult subject matter. Conversely, Angelica Jade Bastien writing for rogerebert.com labelled it as ‘a hollow spectacle…that has nothing to say about race, the justice system or police brutality.’
The actual quality of the film almost seems secondary to these questions of necessity. The deciding factor for many critics as to how successful Detroit is as a film is whether or not it was a film which needed to be made.
On paper, Atomic Blonde is a rehashed version of the tried and tested spy-thriller formula
However, not all of this summer’s blockbusters are being held to the same level of scrutiny. David Leitch’s most recent feature, Atomic Blonde, seems entirely free from any such critical discussion. Critics would be hard pressed to label this film as a ‘necessary’, and so none have tried to.
Instead, and rightly so, critical discussion has centred around the quality of the film-making itself. On paper, Atomic Blonde is a rehashed version of the tried and tested (and tested and tested and tested) spy-thriller formula. An English MI6 agent played by Charlize Theron is sent to Germany to meet with an undercover operative played by James McAvoy.
there is a darkness and grit to it which adds a little weight to the film
The pair are tasked with retrieving a list of secret agents which has been stolen by a Russian KGB agent in the days leading up to the collapse of the Berlin wall. All this plot is nothing new, and is largely forgotten about for most of the film. Essentially it serves as little more than a narrative excuse to let Theron start beating up burly Russian men.
It would be easy to dismiss Atomic Blonde as ‘all style, no substance.’ And while there is some truth to this, there is a darkness and grit to it which adds a little weight to the film. In large part, this grit unsurprisingly comes across in the fight scenes. Stunt Coordinator Sam Hargrave does a phenomenal job with Theron (who does most of her own stunts) and the rest of the stuntmen.
What’s so distinct about these scenes is just how human the characters seem. The fights are deliberate and, in a way, realistic. We don’t see Theron batting away bad guys like flies, but instead see her struggling and tiring as the film progresses. She’s often overpowered by her adversaries, and is often forced to use the environment to her advantage (a saucepan, a hose and a corkscrew all feature heavily).
One fight in particular is absolutely relentless. There isn’t a single cut for what must be near to 15 minutes as the cameraman follows Theron up and down a stairwell as she fights off six men in groups of two. Unlike most action heroes, Theron is visibly injured and slowed by every last hit she receives. By the end of the scene, she can barely stand, let alone fight. Theron and the final assailant both lie next to each other in a mess of broken glass and rubble, trying to raise themselves to their feet to land the final blow.
the essence of Tarantino can be spotted at points
This was a very deliberate stylistic choice which paid off hugely. It’s refreshing to see a move away from the fast-cutting, hard-to-follow style of action popularised by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and Michael Bay’s Transformers films. In a video made for Wired magazine, Sam Hargrave confirmed that ‘as unrealistic as a lot of this stuff is, we tried to add enough realism to where you feel like she’s human.’
Atomic Blonde does have more to offer than its impressive fight scenes however. The essence of Tarantino can be spotted at points throughout the film. Like Tarantino, Leitch makes extensive use of music to create a heightened sense of style.
The majority of the soundtrack is made up of 80s synth-pop, providing a pulsating beat to which the action of the film is choreographed. Two versions of New Order’s Blue Monday (the original and a cover) are featured at various points throughout the film.
This 80s aesthetic extends beyond the music as well, particularly in the scenes taking place in Theron’s hotel room. She is frequently bathed in pink and red neon lights, creating a colour palette similar to that seen in 80s Cyberpunk films like Blade Runner and Tron.
— Alex Durham (@alexiegalaxie) August 31, 2017
So for what could have essentially been little more than a piece of exploitation cinema, Atomic Blonde does an awful lot right. It’s well polished without being overly vacuous, and is endlessly entertaining. An exemplary action-thriller.
What do you think of Atomic Blonde? Let us know…