As I may have said earlier, I was really hoping to like Atomic Blonde. The trailer is all highlights and cool fights, and Charlize Theron was the motor that made the last Mad Max movie hum. Surely, I said to myself, the woman behind Furiosa could carry a spy movie over the line?
Not so much, which is all the weirder when I read that she spent the last five years kicking people so that someone would make an adaptation of a comic book she liked. Somewhere along the line did she not think about how to make it a movie about people rather than just a daisy chain of stunts? or at least try to make sure that she hadn’t green-lit for director half the mind behind John Wick?
Well, who’s to know. It went the way it went, which is stunt heavy. There are a lot of fight scenes, and at one level they’re impressive as hell. Lorraine Broughton is just whup-ass in heels, a non-stop beat-em-up machine who can take a kicking and stand up afterwards to hand out something even worse. And the movie tries to put a sense of consequence into it by piling on the bruises and damage she builds up as the fights keep going. I can see the plan, but if you want the audience to care what happens to a character, make her a character, don’t give her an ever growing collection of contusions.
The problem for the movie in trying to make Lorraine a character is that the plot requires her to be a cipher. It’s Berlin in 1989. Everyone’s motivation is suspect, no-one is what they seem, anybody can be a double agent and not even know it. So we can’t know what Lorraine is really thinking. Nothing we see is the real person - or at least we can never be sure that anything we’re seeing is the real person. This is a perfectly good angle for a narrative, but it’s a real problem when the movie badly needs us to care about someone. Most dumb movies bridge the gap by making someone funny, whether it’s a wisecracking hero or a glib villain (or both - Die Hard runs on that engine). Atomic Blonde doesn’t exactly think that wisecracks are beneath it, but it’s not well enough written to make them funny.
Which all boils down to something which doesn’t quite work. Even something technically impressive somehow fails to register; Lorraine gets into a running fight up and down an apartment building which is edited to look like a continuous take, but which somehow hangs together so badly that I couldn’t even get caught up in the frenzy of the action. This, I remind you, is half the team that made John Wick, which nailed the whole idea of extended action scenes so well I forgot to breathe in places. Something did not go the way everyone had a right to expect that it would.
Which is a shame. There’s a perfectly good movie to be made about the world of spying in late 80s Berlin. More than one got made at the time, if it comes to that. And a good double agent movie can really sing. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy worked just fine as more than just a nostalgia piece. And things like John Wick have shown that you can make a perfectly good movie out of a series of setpiece fights; choreography for its own sake can work. And Atomic Blonde looks good all the way through. Charlize looks great, and Berlin looks just right from moment to moment, even if they probably did most of the East Berlin backstreets with bits of Budapest.
And on the subject of setpiece fights, the running conceit in Atomic Blonde is that Lorraine doesn’t need a gun; she improvises from whatever she can find; a bunch of keys, a hosepipe, pots and pans … Even when she actually gets her hand on a gun, it’s dismantled and she winds up having to use it as a club. That’s a great idea. The late great Adam Hall ran a twenty book series off the back of it, starting with The Berlin Memorandum (as chance would have it). Quiller was a great creation, and Adam Hall would have enjoyed the fights in Atomic Blonde for their brutal simplicity. Quite why they didn’t work in practice, I still don’t know.
But I think, in the end, that it fails because it couldn’t give the characters room to act. Charlize couldn’t. James McAvoy, who completely can act, was directed to chew every carpet he could find. Sophia Boutella, who has died in every movie I’ve seen her in at least finally gets some lines, though not enough to let me figure out if she can really act, or just looks so exotic that it doesn’t matter if she can. The one person who seemed to me to hit the proper tone was John Goodman, who only has a few minutes of screen time, but brings exactly the feeling of worldweary ambiguity everyone else should have had.
Mind you, there’s always an avoidable niggle. Early on, Lorraine is briefed on how a colleague got whacked in Berlin. Shot in the head, she’s told. And they dug a 7.62 mm bullet out of the body they dragged out of the River Spree. Clunk the slide projector to a picture of a cartridge case. The thing which would have been left behind on the road where he was shot before his body was dropped from a great height into a river. Yeah.