David Leitch might not be a recognizable name to most, but it likely soon will be. His career as a stunt actor/coordinator covers 82 films and includes some of the most memorable American action films of the past 20 years. After working on the Matrix Trilogy, he and Chad Stahelski were approached by Keanu Reeves to direct “John Wick.” Since then, they have both made the switch to directors, Stahelski following up with “John Wick: Chapter 2”, and Leitch with both “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2.”
The bulk of the story takes place over 10 days in early November 1989, right before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Battered and bruised, MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is brought in for a debriefing on her mission to Berlin. The narrative jumps between flashbacks as she recalls the details of her story to the MI6 and CIA investigators. It’s become a tiresome trait in films to see the outcome of an event prior to the event taking place, ironically a flaw that John Wick also shared. But, to be fair, this structure is taken directly from the graphic novel on which it’s based, 2012’s “The Coldest City.” Thankfully, “Atomic Blonde” is one of the few adaptations to surpass its source material. The overall story arc remains the same, but the garish black and white illustrations have been replaced with a surreal version of Berlin bathed in near constant reds and blues while multi-lingual classic pop songs spew from every orifice. Cigarettes smoke, alcohol, nudity, and sex are gleefully romanticized. Even the dull French agent in the book has been repurposed as a French woman who enjoys projecting a naive submissiveness and has a penchant for blondes.
Leitch and Kurt Johnstad, who adapted the screenplay, have crafted a film which is nearly a love letter to the cold war. We are shown the best of the terrible time. Sure the government was repressive, but it allowed for a black market in Jordache Jeans and Jack Daniels. Punk Rock actually stood for something, and massive demonstrations actually had an effect. With the beautiful cinematography and stellar soundtrack, we can almost identify with one victim’s last words, “I LOVE BERLIN!” The screenplay attempts to pay homage to a number of classic cold war espionage flicks but does so rather clumsily. It can be appreciated that there’s an attempt to have a bit of mystery and letting the film breathe in between action sequences, but during the middle of the film, it becomes quite muddled. Goals change too quickly, and key bits of information are withheld for nonsensical reasons. More attention has been given to the style and action than the story. This is often the case in most blockbusters, but very rarely do they succeed where “Atomic Blonde” does. Also interesting are some of the Audio/Visual gags peppered throughout the film, perhaps the best is the use of “Under Pressure” as a brilliant punchline to a setup earlier in the film that uses a clip from MTV News the day the Berlin Wall fell.
Similar to “John Wick,” each action sequence has been expertly choreographed, and the majority of the stunts performed by the stars themselves. An extended sequence in the latter third of the movie is made to look like a single take and may now reign as one of the most exceptional long takes to date. Even when you deconstruct how it was achieved it’s still a mind-numbingly complex affair as the action starts in an elevator, works its way back down a staircase, into a tiny car, and for a chase down the Berlin streets. This sequence is worth the price of admission alone.
“Atomic Blonde” is far from a flawless movie, but it’s one hell of a beautiful ride. The structure doesn’t differentiate itself much from countless other throwaway thrillers, but the visuals, choreography, soundtrack and copious amounts of 80’s gratuitous nudity make it one of the better weekend popcorn crowd pleasers.
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