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Non-Review Review: Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a very pretty mess.

Atomic Blonde is a stylistic showcase for director David Leitch and star Charlize Theron, a bruising and beautiful ballet of brutality with a killer soundtrack. Atomic Blonde is a film set in a funhouse mirror version of Berlin in November 1989, a movie that argues its location is more a state of mind than a physical place. The violence in Atomic Blonde is visceral, the mood tangible, the soundtrack delectable. Atomic Blonde is a feast for the senses.

Seeing red.

However, Atomic Blonde also makes next to no sense. The film is an action movie dressed in the attire of a nihilistic espionage thriller, and a little narrative confusion inevitably comes with the territory. These films are all but obligated to have twists and betrayals, macguffins and revelations, switches and levers. Atomic Blonde embraces that zany approach to plot and structure with relish. However, the problem with Atomic Blonde is more fundamental than all that. It often struggles to remain coherent from one scene to the next, from one set piece to another.

Atomic Blonde is beautiful chaos, an exploding collage that probably didn’t make any sense to begin with.

Putting her turtleneck on the line.

The narrative disjointedness of Atomic Blonde is clearly intentional, serving a thematic purpose. The film is set against the backdrop of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the impending fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The film opens with news footage of Ronald Reagan’s famous plea, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” There are extended sequences of the lead character sitting in her moody West Berlin hotel room, as news coverage suggests a pending social apocalypse.

The end of the Cold War is presented an existential apocalypse, as if that monolithic boundary had become a load-bearing structure for the entirety of western civilisation. The characters in Atomic Blonde all seem terrified about what lies beyond the Berlin Wall, in an existential sense. That dividing line serves as one last frontier against which the western world might define itself, one last delineation between the heroes (“the Allies”) and whatever lies beyond.

Fighting form.

Atomic Blonde couches its Berlin imagery in language that evokes a more classical struggle between western civilisation and what lies beyond. “Germany is the Wild West,” complains C early in the movie, conjuring up images of cowboys and lawlessness in the middle of Europe. Later in the film, Emmett Kurzfeld refers to the Soviet soldiers guarding that boundary as “frontier guards”, evoking the myth of manifest destiny and the westward push.

Atomic Blonde appreciates the irony of setting this “Wild West” on the extreme eastern frontier. As the Cold War draws to a close, it seems almost like “the West” has doubled back on itself, that the map has become so muddled and confused that east is literally west. Still, with its focus on lawlessness and debauchery, its emphasis on betrayal and brutality, Atomic Blonde suggests that the eastern frontier has become a vague no man’s land.

“Forgive me, I’ll be debrief.”

Atomic Blonde is palpably anxious about what lies beyond the end of the Cold War. As the cracks are beginning to show in the Berlin Wall, it seems that the rules have already begun to break down. Atomic Blonde is a world populated by characters who lie to one another. Most of the major characters are double agents in one form or another, with a few triple agents thrown in for good measure. Very few characters are ever who they claim to be when introducing themselves.

Even the familiar structures of the espionage thriller threaten to break down under the strain. Atomic Blonde presents a mystery about a possible double agent working in Berlin, but only presents one possible suspect. Atomic Blonde hinges on a single macguffin – an “atomic bomb” of classified intelligence that threatens to expose every covert operative working in the field – only to reveal that there are actually two different copies of it in existence at any one time.

“We’ll always have Berlin.”

One of these two copies is inside the head of a dim-witted Stasi operative with a photographic memory, British actor Eddie Marsan playing an East German character who is apparently only a shave and a questionable shirt away from appearing like an American. The other copy is tucked away inside a watch. One of the sly jokes of Atomic Blonde is the way in which watches are used as conduits for information. With nobody sure what the future might hold, and the natural order breaking down, watches need to serve some other purpose beyond keeping time.

Time seems flexible in the world of Atomic Blonde. It ebbs and flows. The movie explicitly takes place in the shadow of the nineties, but its soundtrack is eclectic. Most of its eighties songs come from the wrong end of the decade. The title alludes to a 1979 single, but most of the movie’s blockbuster tracks were released in 1983: Blue Monday; 99 Luftballons; Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Even the album version of Cat People (Putting Out Fire) came out that year, although the film uses the superior single cut of Bowie’s exploitation soundtrack.

Ich bin ein Berliner.

This sense of timelessness extends beyond the pop hits on the soundtrack. A Berlin nightspot plays You Must Remember This from Casablanca in the background. One memorable action beat unfolds against a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film already a decade old by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Blue Monday and 99 Luftballons are echoed later on the soundtrack, using more modern remixes and cover versions to create a sense that these characters (and the world that they inhabit) are increasingly unstuck in time.

The soundtrack itself is prone to distort and bend, blurring the line between memory and reality. During one impressively choreographed bit of stunt work, George Michael’s Father Figure seems stuck in purgatory before it can finally deliver its closing refrain “… til the end of time.” Similarly, the soundtrack occasionally spills out from the extended flashback sequences into the framing device. Atomic Blonde treats its narrative reality as a hall of mirrors, flashbacks with flashbacks, nested in framing devices amid other flashbacks.

Emotionally walled off.

Repeatedly over the course of Atomic Blonde, effect seems to precede cause. The audience witnesses the aftermath of trauma before they see the action itself. Lorraine Broughton is introduced covered in bruises, her body a map of all the pain and suffering that will be inflicted upon it over the next ninety minutes. David Percival is introduced wearing a cast of his arm, with little context of explanation for what happened.

The characters in Atomic Blonde seems to desperate to assert their own sense of reality and self. There are moments when the characters seem almost aware of their existence within a movie. As Lorraine is debriefed by her handlers, she objects to the presence of a representative of the CIA. He volunteers to just watch from behind the screen. Trying to describe the mood in Berlin, Lorrain suggests that it is akin to a film reel caught in a projector, the film stuttering and eventually burning in front of the audience.

It’s all about to kick off…

It is no small irony that Atomic Blonde was filmed on digital rather than film. Indeed, the movie’s big showcase action sequence is an extended single-take. It is a technical marvel, but one that revels in its own unreality. It is a sequence that would have been impossible to film as one single reel of film, a testament to the artistic and creative wizardry of all involved. One of the beautiful paradoxes of these long takes is the way in which long and unbroken shots tend to push into the realm of the uncanny, somehow seeming more unreal than a sequence edited in a traditional way.

This sense of unreality permeates Atomic Blonde. As with any espionage thriller, there is a lot of recording and surveillance. However, most characters seem to be surveilling themselves. The act of observing and recording is a major theme in Atomic Blonde, but beyond the obvious. Characters are always listening and watching, but not necessarily as a means of passing on information or documenting for their superiors.

Room for improvement.

Many of the spies in the world of Atomic Blonde seem to be recording themselves, as if to prove that they exist. The movie’s framing device features a meeting that is quite pointedly “on the record”, with Lorraine Broughton offering to play the recording back. Broughton spends most of the movie wired up, but spends entire scenes listening back to her own conversations. David Percival seems to keep a recording device on himself at all times. Delphine Lasalle is a photographer with a darkroom just off her bedroom.

The irony, of course, is that none of these records actually matter. Recordings can be manipulated. Photos can be doctored. Narratives can be tweaked and reinvented. At one point, the ubiquitous news coverage pivots sharply away from the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Sampling,” the host begins. “Is it art or is it just plagiarism?” Many of the characters in Atomic Blonde would seem to treat it as an artform, something reflected in the film’s use of covers and remixes at various points in its soundtrack.

Red threat.

This is, of course, the real fear of what lies behind the fall of the Berlin Wall. Atomic Blonde is a movie about the collapse of social order at the end of the Cold War, in which the collapse of the Berlin Wall is treated as the bursting of a postmodern dam. There is a flood coming, that will wipe away all sense of meaning and purpose, all trace of reality and objectivity. Atomic Blonde suggests that the cracks are beginning to form. Atomic Blonde is about the eighties giving way to the nineties.

Atomic Blonde is a movie incredibly anxious about the nineties. The characters have no idea what that decade might hold, suggesting a world without any defining ordering principles. The audience is invited to share that anxiety, to wonder what social context exists for the nineties beyond the pop culture fueling sequels like Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence. Francis Fukuyama described the nineties as “the end of history.” Phillip E. Wagner labelled the decade as “life between two deaths.” Even in retrospect, the nineties remain hard to parse.

A topsy-turvy upside-down world.

The nineties looms like a monster, casting a shadow over all the characters in Atomic Blonde. The chaotic narrative structure reflects this, with the story intentionally attempting to disorient its characters and its audience. There are points when Atomic Blonde succeeds too well. The confusion works very well on the level of plot and character, but is less convincing on a scene-by-scene basis. There are a lot of points in Atomic Blonde where individual scenes seems muddled or lacking in purpose, even as the bright splashes of colour in the overall design seem clear.

This struggle to make sense on a scene-to-scene basis is deeply frustrating, with character motivations often hard to decipher within an individual sequence. The overall character arcs roughly make sense, and most of the characters conform to familiar spy movie archetypes, but it can be very difficult to see where a character is coming from at any given moment. More than that, it is often difficult to assign motivation (or intent) for specific actions in retrospect.

A bruising assignment.

There is a sense in which none of this matters. Atomic Blonde is a visceral and effective piece of work. A lot of this is down to Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, the agent at the centre of the story. Broughton is a such a cold warrior that she literally bathes in tubs full of ice. Theron’s demeanour is appropriately frosty, her attitude inscrutable. Theron does a lot of her own stunt work, and it pays off. The violence in Atomic Blonde is striking.

The choreography is stunning. Much of the violence in Atomic Blonde reflects the movie’s cynicism and weariness. The big show-stopping long take sequence effectively has the character fight in one gigantic bloody circle, with most of that take spent getting Lorraine back to where she began. Borrowing a trick from the similar hallway fight sequences in Daredevil, the brawlers in Atomic Blonde constantly feel tired and on the verge of collapse; by the end, they often struggle to stand. At certain points, the brutality even crosses a line into extreme bleak comedy.

Lighten the mood.

As with a lot of Atomic Blonde, there is an inherent contradiction in how director David Leitch approaches Charlize Theron. The sequence introducing Broughton is striking because it allows Theron to be nude without being sexualised. The camera treats Theron’s nude body in the same way that Logan might approach the body of Hugh Jackman or The Bourne Identity would study the body of Matt Damon, treating that body as a tapestry documenting a violent life. It is a very effective establishing moment, one that doesn’t feel sensationalist. Instead, it feels frank.

However, there are points at which Leitch does heavily sexualise his female bodies. Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella spend large portions of the film in their undergarments, while the film luxuriates in a lesbian sex scene that seems tailored to the male gaze. In contrast, neither James McAvoy nor Bill Skarsgård are sexualised at all. There is a clear tension in how Atomic Blonde approaches Theron-as-Loughton, unsure whether to treat her body as a weapon or a sex object.

Also not sexualised? Toby Jones.

Then again, there are points at which Atomic Blonde seems practically hedonistic. The film’s philosophy borders on cynical and nihilist, but it is incredibly stylish and rich. The film is heavily saturated with neon shades of green, red, blue, purple and pink. Lighting technician Hinrich Peters and cinematographer Jonathan Sela make the film pop. In a particularly nice touch, many of the talking head scenes are shot in such a way that the characters involved are shaded in different colours as if Berlin itself has an ambient emotional lightscape.

Atomic Blonde is too messy and uneven to really click, too unfocused and disjointed to work as well as it might. It is a movie that embraces chaos without tempering it with discipline. The result is a movie that is oddly charming, with a structure that reflects its core themes a little too well. Atomic Blonde is not necessarily a good movie, but it is a beautiful one.

4 Responses

  1. Really thoughtful review as always Darren. I have to agree with much of what you say about the structure and its unevenness.
    I found the framing of her telling her superiors what happened in the interview room a bit redundant for the most part. Then on the flip side establishing that structure early on seemed familiar and almost by-the-numbers storytelling. Instead of using that, the movie was content to then totally mash up the other parts of the movie, making it seem like a lot was left out or it didn’t quite match up.
    The action was great though and they really threw everything at it, from short car chase scenes to the long take scene you refer to. It came across as a movie within a movie or even the genesis of the whole project.

    • Yeah, the action is superb. And I like the tone. But the script really feels like it could have been thrown out and reconstructed from scratch around the action beats and the tonal/thematic elements.

  2. The ending of this movie made me straight up ask “what the fucking hell?”, just… what?!?

    • It’s a great example of “we know the type of ending that this story is all but obligated to have… but we don’t know quite how to pull it off.”

      Still, I do like the film’s mood a lot.

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