Review: Atomic Blonde (cinema)

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Okay. Okay. Now I want to drive around at speed, punch things, and listen to ’80s music LOUD. It’s like my normal state, but MORE. This movie looked and sounded gorgeous. Blaring synth-pop tunes and flickering projectors, neons, and fluorescents tried to smother the violence, but the violence won out. You think Daredevil’s corridor fight looks tiring? You ain’t seen nothing. And between it all Charlize Theron smiles a wan smile and looks at you from beneath her too-long fringe. And you think: yes, please punch me in the face too.

To be honest, it took a little while to win me over to this extent. The way the music and the fight scenes intersected was telegraphed in such a stylised way that it bugged me at first, as did the stilted dialogue and self-conscious posing of Theron and James McAvoy around their ever present cigarettes and vodka. When she wasn’t speaking, Theron’s face said so much, but then something that wasn’t convincingly an English accent came out of her mouth in a clipped monotone and I wished repeatedly that the movie had no dialogue. This feeling faded — and I can’t decide if in the end my suspicions were validated or made redundant — and about a third of the way into the movie it hit its stride; basically once Lorraine had managed to gain some control over her mission.

It’s a movie that will benefit from rewatching (though perhaps I’m just bad at guessing the twists in spy movies), though it will mean rewatching the bad with the good. There’s a trope that’s embedded firmly in the genre that coincides with a trope that occurs too frequently across various media anyway. It wasn’t ‘as bad’ as I’d expected, having been spoiled, but frankly it remained unnecessary; and perhaps by not being ‘bad’ in the way I’d expected, it ended up being worse for being lazy in a different way.(1 – spoilers)

Anyway, probably because I knew it was coming, I let myself compartmentalise that part of the story, and I’m a little ashamed with how much I enjoyed the rest. It wasn’t terribly afflicted with the male gaze, but with mirrors everywhere it maintained a sexy, stylised look that I’d argue was a rung or so above Music Video. In the action scenes, and the less people talked, it felt less like a comic adaptation (and in this case I’m saying that’s a good thing). The action was where it shone: you could feel the bruising impact of each blow; you knew how much harder Lorraine had to work to land the kind of punch she needed to; but you knew she was capable of it. The stairwell fight and its follow-up were exhilarating and horrifying in equal parts.

By the end, what was a fairly simple premise — that many might have guessed the twists to earlier than I did — was wrung to a taut, smart finale. With all of Lorraine’s antagonist’s monologuing about the nature of ‘truth’, her contemptuous silence told you all you needed to know. His musings barely scratched the surface of her own experience.

She was a compelling hero, and Theron’s skills brought out layers of vulnerability as well as cunning that a lesser actor wouldn’t have managed. If it wasn’t for the specificity of the setting (as with so many Cold War movies) I’d be eager for a sequel that took care to avoid some of the tropes this one languished in. As a stand-alone it’s good fun though, and I’ll happily watch it again. It’s just not as revolutionary as it might have been, sadly; though it’s still smarter than a Bond movie.


(1) spoilers

Of course I’m talking about Delphine’s death. So soft and sweet and naïve — of course she wasn’t going to make it through. She managed more fight than I expected, and indeed was around longer than expected. But these were manifestations of the lazy storytelling I’m talking about: the movie wants you to think she means something to Lorraine. It wants you to see how close she came to winning, to living, to being rescued. But when you know from the beginning that she’s going to die, because not only must the love-interest die, but we must bury our gays, it’s … shall we say, very hard to let yourself get involved? Though tbf she did a lot better than Irina in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…(and I love that movie too).

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