Daniel Armstrong and Brooke Heinz discuss Atomic Blonde. Many comparisons to John Wick are made, even though Brooke has never seen it.
During the closing years of the Cold War, MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron, coming off her powerful turn in Mad Max: Fury Road) is sent to Berlin to recover a list of active double agents after a fellow spy is murdered. Partnered with the unpredictable David Percival (James McAvoy – Wanted, X-Men), Broughton finds herself in a city as unforgiving as the spies that fill it. A stylish mix of the hard-hitting action of stuntman-turned-director David Leitch’s previous work (John Wick) and spy espionage drama, John Wick fan Daniel Armstrong and Leitch newcomer Brooke Heinz see if Atomic Blonde is as explosive as its title suggests.
Brooke: First thing’s first: the comparisons to John Wick are seemingly unavoidable when it comes to the conversation around this film. These were largely irrelevant to me as I have not seen the series before, but I know you are quite the fan. Did your positive view of John Wick affect your expectations?
Daniel: It definitely did. After seeing the ultra-stylised neon action of the trailer all I could think was “this is Jane Wick in the cold war”, and those assumptions probably didn’t help my experience when I finally saw Atomic Blonde. I was a bit let down to be honest, mainly because of the characters. Our titular blonde felt very nihilistic and one dimensional to me, so I found it difficult to get invested in her character or mission. That applies to McAvoy’s Percival as well, who just seemed to do whatever he thinks would look cool in a movie.
Brooke: So you would point to it more being an issue with screenwriter Kurt Johnstad’s writing, rather than the performances of the cast? I find that interesting, as while I agree Theron’s stone-faced killer in the first act was verging on frustratingly unsympathetic and tiresome, McAvoy’s performance as Percival represented another captivating and joyous role in his impressive filmography. His energy felt sorely needed between all the scowling and straight-faced chain smoking of the other intelligence operatives. What did you find one-dimensional about McAvoy’s performance?
Daniel: The performances were great, I’m not sure if it was the script or the editing cutting out important character moments, but both our leads seemed to be lacking a real motivation for what they were doing. While McAvoy was definitely engaging on screen (as he always is), without knowing why he’s doing the things that he’s doing I just felt disconnected.
Brooke: On the topic motivation and a lack of emotional resonance, I did find their repeated use, subversion, and almost parody of the ‘fridging’ trope often reserved for the motivation of male protagonists noteworthy. I was also surprised by the moderate amount of development given to the core romantic relationship — which easily could have veered into exploitation but turned out be a pleasantly genuine gender-flipping parody of spy films before it. Regardless, would you say, on a first viewing, the character motivations and plot developments are not clear enough?
Daniel: Yes, the brief hints we do get of a personal motivation were too vague for the protagonist of a political espionage film. There’s enough going on in both the plot and action of the film that sometimes you need some things to be simple, or else it just gets too complicated.
Brooke: I agree that the third act is a needlessly convoluted mess of double-crossing which I cannot help but think will alienate a lot of viewers such as yourself who turned up for an action movie. On that note, what was your reaction to the fight sequences? As someone with no experience with Leitch’s previous work, I was initially worried it would either turn into a Taken-esque flurry of quick cuts or, alternatively, another failed attempt to cash-in on the one-take trend popularised by Netflix’s Daredevil (or, even earlier, 2003’s Oldboy). Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised that while it did exhibit more of the latter, the smooth cinematography and careful staging meant that clarity was retained without sacrificing the realism they were aiming for.
Daniel: Leitch has definitely shown that action is his strong suit with John Wick ; he knows how to establish an action scene so you always know where the key players are and who’s fighting who, while still keeping up the pace of each fight. It definitely hits the right balance of quick cuts and long smooth shots in almost all the action scenes. The only real complaint I have for those scenes is that they have fake blood spray on the ‘camera’ to make it feel more gritty I guess, but it comes off more like a video game effect to me. Speaking of stylistic choices though, it was based on the graphic novel Coldest City, do you think that played into the style of the film?
Brooke: I am unfamiliar with the source material, but from a cursory glance at the comic it seems Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela went the opposite direction — transforming the black and white panels into a sensory overload of neon lights and 80s pop-music which would make Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, The Neon Demon) jealous. I personally enjoyed the creative framing and colour overlays which dominated majority of the movie and thought it was a nice contrast to the dull colour palettes and shot choices of other Cold War films (although some of that does sneak in, too). On the other hand, the constant and jarringly edited influx of recognisable pop music felt strangely overkill and gave me negative flashbacks to Suicide Squad. However, I know you have quite a different opinion of the film’s take on ‘cool’ and use of music…
Daniel: It is definitely a distinct style for a Cold War movie, possibly influenced by the neon pop-culture explosion that was Guardians of the Galaxy, and it suited the tone of the movie well. The 80’s German and British pop music was an odd choice (albeit one I liked), tying in to what the more resistant youths of the time would have been listening to which gave the movie a rebellious feel. But this leads to the movie coming off as though it thought it was the coolest thing ever. The constant smoking and “it’s cool to not care” attitude of our radioactive blonde probably didn’t help that either.
Brooke: So, to wrap it up, Atomic Blonde is a competently-shot action film that gets a little too confident when it comes to not only style, but also weaving an unnecessarily complicated plot.
Feature Image: Focus Features via Atomic Blonde website