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SXSW Film Review: ‘Atomic Blonde’

Variety logo Variety 3/13/2017 Andrew Barker
© Provided by Variety

Toward the end of “Atomic Blonde,” David Leitch’s hyperviolent, hyperstylized action pic set in Berlin just before the fall of the wall, Charlize Theron’s MI6 superwoman Lorraine Broughton is tasked with protecting a Stasi defector. He’s been wounded on the street, and she drags him into a building lobby. “Wait here,” she says, and proceeds to do brutal battle with waves of henchmen up an elevator, down a staircase, into an apartment, out of the apartment, with a gun, without a gun, with an unloaded gun, with stray bits of furniture, back out into the street, into a car, forward in the car, and then in reverse. The scene lasts a good five minutes, and does not contain a single obvious cut. It is worth the price of admission alone.

It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of the film can’t help but feel like a long prelude to this single bravura display of technique. Sure, the film has style to burn, employing enough neon lighting to power the Las Vegas Strip for weeks. Theron casts an indomitable figure throughout, and the camera lingers on every contour of her face and body with an intensity that verges on the fetishistic. The action set pieces are every bit the equal of Leitch’s previous effort, “John Wick,” and “Atomic Blonde” should at least equal that film’s box office tally when it’s released this summer.

But so much uncut hardboiled posturing proves exhausting over a nearly two-hour runtime, and with zero emotional stakes and a plot that is both difficult and seemingly pointless to follow, there’s a fundamental emptiness behind all the flash. Virtuosic kick-ass filmmaking can be its own reward, but to paraphrase “Idiocracy,” you still need to care about whose ass it is, and why it’s being kicked.

Lifted from Antony Johnston’s graphic novel “The Coldest City,” “Atomic Blonde’s” heroine is a blank slate of emotionless efficiency. A master of cold stares and even colder line readings, Lorraine’s entire diet appears to consist of frozen Stoli on the rocks. We watch her emerge nude from an ice bath more than once, and her introductory scene is shot with so much blue lighting it may as well have been filmed inside a glacier.

She’s looking very worse-for-wear as she undergoes debriefing with her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a no-nonsense CIA chief (John Goodman), narrating the events of the previous ten days in flashback. Her mission began in West Berlin: After the murder of a key agent, a list containing the names and whereabouts of every British intelligence asset has gone missing.

In order to find it, Lorraine has to rendezvous with David Percival (James McAvoy), a debauched former Berlin bureau chief who’s recently “gone feral,” selling black market Jack Daniel’s and Jordache to track-suited East Berliners while they breakdance to Public Enemy. It’s never entirely clear where his sympathies lie, but he has access to an East German operative (Eddie Marsan) who has committed the entire list to memory, and he also lets Lorraine know that a double agent, known as Satchel, may be lurking somewhere in their midst.

Although Lorraine unwinds each night by listening to audio surveillance recordings, and starts each morning by taping a recording device to her torso (both while wearing expensive-looking lingerie, of course), we scarcely get to see her do much espionage work. Mostly, she shows up at various locations impeccably dressed, attracts the attention of various assassins, and dispatches them with spectacular displays of violence. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off both the ice-queen glamour and punishing physical requirements of the role as well as Theron, who at this point has become as reliable an action hero as Schwarzenegger and Stallone ever were. Yet her character remains inscrutable, with few deeper motivations and even less in the way of backstory. At least we knew John Wick liked dogs.

The closest she comes to revealing a human being behind the killing-machine exterior comes when she meets up with a wet-behind-the-ears French spy (Sofia Boutella), who quickly becomes her lover. But Leitch seems uninterested in developing relationships between his characters, leaving them to scamper about on parallel tracks until the hazy machinations of the plot conspire to bring them together. The film’s villains barely register, and bonus points to anyone who can explain exactly what Til Schweiger’s character is supposed to be doing here.

What Leitch is interested in, however, is brute spectacle and jaw-dropping stuntwork, and on those counts he succeeds mightily. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela does excellent work with some very complex fight choreography, capturing the mayhem in deep, saturated tones, and the film presents a believable facsimile of 1989 Germany. A good two dozen pop singles from the decade make appearances, though strangely enough for a film that was only recently retitled “Atomic Blonde,” Blondie’s “Atomic” is not one of them.

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