I’ve been super excited to see Atomic Blonde, ever since I first saw the trailer back in April. However, I couldn’t help but notice that there was like almost zero buzz about the movie after it initially came out, at least not on my social media. I figured that probably wasn’t a great sign, but I still wanted to check it out for myself, so Mek, Lindsey, and I all went to the movies last week to give it a shot.
Well. It’s got problems, all right. On the upside, Charlize Theron kicks some serious ass.
Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is an MI6 agent who goes to Berlin after a fellow agent is murdered and a master list of every Cold War spy is taken off his body. Her assignment: make contact with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), recover the list, and uncover the identity of the mysterious double agent Satchel.
1. Let’s begin with something positive: it’s really, really nice to see a badass woman headline her own action film.
I’m not saying it never happens, obviously. But it doesn’t happen all that often. Even some of the best lady badasses in recent years (Rebecca Ferguson in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Scarlett Johansson in any of the Marvel movies, Charlize Theron herself in Mad Max: Fury Road) are, at very best, co-leads, not the main attraction. And of course, we had Wonder Woman this year, and she’s great and all, but let’s not forget that Wonder Woman was the first lady superhero movie since 2005, not to mention that Atomic Blonde probably makes, what, the third and probably last female-led action movie we’ll get all year? (I’m including this, WW, and Ghost in the Shell, not that I’ve heard a single positive thing about Ghost in the Shell.) Meanwhile, compare that to the number of dude-centric movies coming out in 2017, like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Logan, Baby Driver, Thor: Ragnarok, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, The Fate of the Furious, The Mummy, John Wick: Chapter 2, Kingsman: The Secret Circle, etc.
I’m saying it’s not exactly a 50/50 split, so yeah, it’s super refreshing to see a bonafide lady action star. Now I just want to see them consistently, and not limit those roles to white actresses only.
2. Also positive: the fight sequences are all pretty awesome. I do have some trouble with the music matched with those sequences–more on that in a bit–but the actual choreography is stunning. There are three particularly good scenes: one includes heels, one includes a rope, and the standout scene primarily takes place on a staircase. I like this particular one a lot, as it’s fun and violent and strongly reminds me of the hallway scene from the first season of Daredevil.
It’s also really nice–and I know how this is going to sound before I even type it out–to see a female action hero who gets punched hard in the face. Men take beatings in plenty of gritty action films, but they dish out as much as they take; there’s an equality to their fight scenes, a give and take, no matter if the actual opponents are equal in size or not.
Women are different. They might get some badass fight scenes, sure, but they’re usually the bloodless kind where almost every blow is perfectly countered and everyone walks away with nary a limp or hair out of place–which is sometimes cool, absolutely, but not always what I’m looking for. (Other typical female fight scene tropes: the One Good Woman fights the One Evil Woman, the One Good Woman shows far more pain/vulnerability when she’s injured than her Dude Partners, the One Good Woman fights one henchman, while her Dude Partners each take on several bad guys at a time.) Or if there is raw violence, it’s probably not a fight scene. It’s a torture scene where the Girlfriend or Mother or whoever gets beat up so that the Dude Hero can get all angsty and shit about it. Those women get brutalized, but don’t get the opportunity to hit back.
Atomic Blonde has the kind of raw, violent, creative fight choreography and stunt work that I’ve longed to see for women. That, alone, was probably worth the price of admission.
3. The only problem is the music.
Let’s be clear here: I love the Atomic Blonde soundtrack. Bowie and The Clash and Nena and A Flock of Seagulls? It’s like an 80’s paradise in here, and you better believe I’m listening to the playlist as I write this review. I think the only song I didn’t particularly care for was “Father Figure,” partially because it’s just not my favorite George Michael song, but also because I fucking LOVED the Personal Jesus/Black Skinhead remix they used for the same part in the trailer. (On the upside, it’s definitely the most unlikely song on the soundtrack to be matched with a fight scene, and I do generally like fight scenes paired with unlikely song choices.)
No, my actual problem is that the music is so loud that it nearly muffles all other sound, and sound is a crucial component in fight scenes. All that celery breaking or whatever Hollywood uses these days adds a lot to what you’re watching. And it’s not only the fight scenes, either; a huge chunk of this movie comes across as one long hyped up music video, which is a stylistic choice that’s super fun when used sparingly, like, maybe for one particular stand-out scene; take, for example, Quicksilver and “Time in a Bottle” in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But this is not just once or twice. This is repetitive. The soundtrack is fun to listen to, but–at least on first viewing–it really overwhelms the story.
4. Which perhaps was intentional. Because the story has problems.
Atomic Blonde starts out simply enough, but gets convoluted fast. Of course, not every story is meant to be easy. Some stories are hard to follow because their plots are complex and intricate and they don’t waste time with a lot of hand holding. And maybe I’ll feel that way about this movie with repeat viewings, but my instincts tell me that this story is mostly hard to follow because it’s sloppy. The potential is all there, but it’s not executed particularly well.
5. On the upside, I generally enjoy all the acting. Charlize Theron, as previously stated, is awesome: Lorraine Broughton is a cold, furious protagonist who I enjoy quite a bit. And while I will never, ever judge an actor for not doing their own stunts (God knows I can barely make corners without clipping my shoulder against a wall), it’s pretty damn neat, knowing that Theron did most of her own stunt work.
Then there’s James McAvoy.
McAvoy’s okay here, too, although I probably spent about half the movie wondering if I’d like someone better in the part. On further reflection, though, I don’t think that this is an acting thing so much as a script thing. Many of the story problems seem to revolve around his character, something I’ll discuss further in the Spoiler Section.
I did, however, quite like Sofia Boutella as Delphine, the rookie French operative. Her screen time is rather limited by comparison, but I thought she brought a lot of energy to each and every scene, not to mention had fantastic chemistry with Charlize Theron. I’d watch these two play awesome lady spies together in a hot second.
6. Finally, before we get to Spoilers, I just need to tell you that our heroine Lorraine bathes like a fucking weirdo.
I could get over her first ice bath. At this point in the movie, she’s battered and bruised to all hell, and I’m assuming that all this ice will help with the swelling or something. Later in the film, however, she is considerably less injured, and not only does she draw herself another ice bath, she just casually turns over and submerges her whole face in the ice cube infested water, like she’s a fucking Arctic mermaid. And, no. Just no. I get that Lorraine’s a badass who lives in a very bleak, nihilistic, snake-eat-snake kind of world and all, but come on, lady. This is just ridiculous. You’re gonna get frostbite on your face, and I’m gonna laugh.
Now that I’m done ranting about Lorraine’s eccentric bathing habits, let’s get back to the actual plot, shall we?
Actually, I don’t really feel like giving a full plot synopsis today. If you’re reading this without having seen the movie (or just need a quick refresher), you can look here for the basic rundown. Meanwhile, I’m just gonna jump straight into the problems.
After watching the film, my sister suggested that maybe as audience members we were supposed to think that Lorraine and Percival were investigating one another, and we weren’t supposed to be sure which one of them was the traitorous Satchel. Then we’d be tricked into thinking it was Percival when he shot Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), but actually it was Lorraine all along. (Until it kind of wasn’t, but we’ll get to that total bullshit later.)
That could have been kind of neat, if that’s what the filmmakers were indeed going for. But it’s really not the experience I had watching this film at all.
A big part of my problem with Atomic Blonde is that, from the very beginning, Percival acted like such a shady fucker that I wasn’t remotely surprised when he turned on Lorraine and left her for dead, like, this wasn’t even the first time he screwed her over for reasons I still largely don’t understand. Regardless, I couldn’t and still can’t shake the impression that I was supposed to be surprised. The whole scene had the feel of a twist without the build for a twist, and it’s one thing for a movie to include an obvious DUN DUN DUN moment you saw coming a mile away; it’s quite something else to watch a plot twist and be genuinely confused if you were supposed to find it shocking or not.
I don’t quite know how to fix this, either, except to give some actual time and consideration to Percival’s motivations for the various shit he gets up to in this movie; the script, unfortunately, seems content to merely wave a hand and mention that he’s gone feral. He’s definitely not a nice dude: after betraying Lorraine, he kills Delphine after she calls him up and threatens to expose him, or something. (He killed her because she knew too much, right? Would he have killed her if she hadn’t called?) Lorraine then kills Percival, reveals herself to be Satchel, and frames him for her crimes.
Four things here:
A. Satchel is a dumb name for a double agent. We can all agree on that, can’t we?
B. Delphine’s death doesn’t work for me at all.
The dead lesbian trope–dead queer trope, really–has been analyzed and pulled apart many times, mostly by people who are more insightful and knowledgeable on the subject than me. (I’m gonna try to do it anyway, but let’s not pretend I’m inventing the wheel here or anything. If you’re familiar with the trope, these are likely all arguments you’ve heard before.) It’s also worth mentioning that this trope is one that usually affects me on more of an intellectual than emotional level: I don’t necessarily feel the gut punch that other audience members might, and if I found out a book or movie I was really interested in killed off a queer character before I got the chance to check the story out, I probably wouldn’t skip that story based on this specific knowledge alone. (Or else I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Atomic Blonde in the first place, considering that–based off the movie trailer–I figured Sophia Boutella’s character had maybe a 4% chance of survival. Possibly less.)
That all being said, due to the pervasiveness of this trope and the huge inequality of straight to queer characters in mainstream film and literature, I do think it’s a harmful storytelling convention. I believe that it can be done well and that creators have every right to use it, but I also think those creators–particularly straight creators–need to consider a few things in mind before trying to do so: one, some people are going to actively avoid your story no matter how respectful you think you were, and it’s totally okay for them to do that; two, your story is going to be judged in a larger context whether you like it or not, and three, if your story requires the trope, then do your best to do it well. If it doesn’t require the trope, like, seriously. Maybe not?
Delphine’s death doesn’t work for me in Atomic Blonde because the story doesn’t require it at all. It shows us that Percival is a really shitty person, sure, but Percival has already proved that he’s a murderous skeezebucket, hasn’t he? It reinforces the idea that everyone around Lorraine dies, but that’s such a tired oh-so-tragic hero trope I yawned before I even finished writing this sentence. And it gets Lorraine into Vengeance Mode, I guess, except that we kind of have James Gasciogne for that, don’t we? Even if Lorraine needed a second death to get her really, really angry, we didn’t need Delphine for that because we already have Spyglass. Lorraine promises to get Spyglass to safety, saying she’s never lost anyone she’s transported before, but despite going to epic fucking lengths and nearly getting killed in the process, Lorraine does lose him. Spyglass’s death is an interesting motivator. Vengeance doesn’t always have to be about sex, after all. Which means Delphine’s death is just pointless and redundant and frustrating as all hell.
C. The scene where Lorraine confronts Percival is easily one of the most interesting moments in the whole movie, though I suppose that depends on how you read it. That Wikipedia summary I linked to before? It suggests that the audience should believe Percival is Satchel at this point, that we’re not meant to realize Lorraine is Satchel until she meets with the Russians. But I actually thought this was the reveal scene, where we realize that Lorraine has been a double agent all along, and Percival has been working against her because he is, possibly, at least somewhat loyal to his country, just not to his agency’s methods. For instance, he murders Delphine for self-preservation, but he murders Spyglass because he thinks the guy is too dangerous to let live.
And that, that I found interesting. I still thought the movie had been unnecessarily muddled, but–for once–the unreliable narrator trope didn’t bother me, and I loved the focus on moral ambiguity. That line “who won, and what was the fucking game anyway” worked for me in the context of how I initially understood this scene: spies, it seemed, inevitably lost themselves in their spy games, and there weren’t heroes or villains, just people doing progressively shittier and shitter things, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad ones. I really liked the idea that Lorraine was the Bad Guy but still genuinely cared about Spyglass and Delphine. I also liked the idea that Percival was technically the Good Guy but also a fucking backstabber and murderer. This was interesting, and while I struggled with the execution of it, I was ready to think at least the film had ambition . . .
D. . . . until Lorraine revealed that she’d been feeding bad intel to the Russians all along, and she was really a triple agent working for the Americans. And then, people, I was forced to admit that while I had an idea who won (USA), I didn’t know what the fucking game was and I wasn’t terribly convinced that the writers did, either. Because seriously, any sense of interesting moral ambiguity just went straight out the window, in favor of a deeply unnecessary plot twist that’s both unoriginal and poorly supported.
For fuck’s sake, people. No one wants a triple agent. No one wants a twist for twist’s sake. Learn where to end your story cause this one is bullshit.
I mean, it’s not the worst thing ever. If you just want cool action scenes and 80’s music, you might totally like it. But that’s mostly want I thought I wanted to and can’t help but feel disappointed anyway. Personally, I’d say skip the movie, buy the soundtrack, and just watch the fight scenes on Youtube, but you do you.
Charlize Theron, no question
The spy business is brutal and demands violence, versatility, and ice baths. Consider your life choices carefully.