SXSW 2017: Atomic Blonde
Director David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde has been billed from its announcement as "Lady Wick" given its director’s and stunt team’s pedigree. And, to compare the film to the now established John Wick franchise is to both reveal Atomic Blonde’s greatest strengths and to highlight its weaknesses. Make no mistake, Atomic Blonde is wall-to-wall brilliance packaged in an aggressively 80’s package. But, walking out of the film, I couldn’t help but commit the cardinal sin of reviews: comparing one film to another.
So, let us just get the few things wrong with Atomic Blonde out of the way so I can go on to gush about this film like a geyser. Where John Wick, and especially its sequel, smartly flesh out the world — building a foundation of regulations, organizations, and locations — Atomic Blonde seems content to keep its mouth zipped tightly shut. And, this is a shame considering, like the Continental of Wick, Blonde has locations that ooze with world-building potential. Remember that brilliant gun shop in John Wick: Chapter Two’s hotel? Well, Atomic Blonde squanders a similar set, failing to reveal much about its world in a location absolutely begging for more contextualization than the film allows. Atomic Blonde, being a Cold War espionage story, also is pregnant with twists. In fact, in the post-screening Q&A, Charlize Theron (who plays the titular heroine), noted as much. However, when you pepper your film with twists, being too liberal can create numbing confusion rather than suspense. And, though Atomic Blonde never grows convoluted, its twisty narrative certainly begins to shirk the emphasis of the story from plot to action set pieces.
So, it is certainly wonderful then that Leitch’s film pulses with a ferocious adrenaline that few action films today do. When Atomic Blonde explodes into crimson-soaked fireworks, it’s absolutely electric. There’s a stairwell scene that I’ll get to in a minute (and about which you will be hearing a lot before release), but there is another almost equally stunning scene earlier on in the film. At one point, our protagonist dips into a theater playing Tarkovsky’s Stalker to evade the bad guys nipping at her heels. It’s appropriately tense, and when the gunshots do start to ring out, the scene climaxes in a stupendously gory finale. The invocation of Stalker is cute, but not really all that substantive, even given the Berlin backdrop. However, it is the stairwell scene that remains the crown jewel of this film’s action choreography. Shot in a Greengrass-cum-Wick long-take, Leitch manages to elevate the stakes beat after beat after beat. And, just when you think it can’t possibly get any more brutal or beautiful, it does. Every nanosecond of the most impressive one-take in (probably) a decade helps build the mini-story arc of a scene. However, unlike so many action scenes, this scene knows how to punctuate the action to perfection. Hits, shots, stabs, and swipes act as careful releases of tension, not mindless bashing.
Lastly, the costume design is utter perfection in this film. Of course, any period piece — but especially an 80’s period piece — provides ample room for experimentation and opulence in design. But, what costume designer Cindy Evans does with the costuming, like Jenkin’s Moonlight last year, is to evoke character through costume. The sharp blacks that Charlize wears at the beginning gradually give way to a fusion of black and white later on, and, finally, the costuming blossoms into a brilliant and vivid red. Each of these changes comes in accordance with a narrative shift. Just as we think we know what is going on, Leitch slaps us with a twist. Then, we get black and white; the story is being complicated. Finally, as our last twist arrives: red. It’s subtle, but brilliant stuff and the monochromatic (and at times duochromatic) wardrobe clashes beautifully with the Argento-esque neon of Charlize’s web-like abode.
Atomic Blonde, despite its problems, is every bit as pulse-poundingly punchy as you could hope. It’s gorgeous, full of intrigue, and features stellar performances from a cast that includes such heavyweights as John Goodman, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, and (the brilliant and rising) Sofia Boutella. If Cold War espionage, slick fight scenes, and “99 Red Balloons” sound like a cocktail of perfection (which, let’s be honest, they do), see Atomic Blonde as early as possible.