There is nothing new about the One Man Army action genre, but it seems to have hit a fever pitch in recent years. One man, one gun, hundreds of enemies and unlimited ammo are only a few of the distinguishing features. Usually, based on revenge or some clandestine/rogue agent mission, our hero faces unimaginable odds but somehow is able to decimate all of them. Traditionally, this is a male dominated genre, with few exceptions like The Bride from Kill Bill and Ripley from Alien. Charlize Theron continues to prove she can hold her own against any man in the action genre and even goes so far as to teach them a few things inside the exhilarating Atomic Blonde.
Like every DC and Marvel movie, Atomic Blonde is a film that joins the ever-growing filmography of films based on comic books and graphic novels. What it doesn’t share with these franchises (with the exceptions of Logan and Deadpool) is the temerity of content and carnage. It’s not afraid to hold anything back or pull any punches, both in the fight sequences as well as the sexuality. You may recall David Leitch’s work as one part of the directing duo that brought John Wick to life. Like his past partner Chad Stahelski, Leitch also hails from a stunt coordinator background, which is the greatest asset to films like John Wick, and especially Atomic Blonde.
Leitch displays his visual acuity by combining the source material with his stunt expertise to create an experience not unlike John Wick, but visually superior. The fight choreography is immaculate as expected, with superior camera work to enhance the effects. Every punch, kick, and gunshot has a gritty, visceral impact that is augmented by the absorbing sound design. He even pairs most of the scenes with an iconic song from that time period to give the action sequences a better flow and to make them more dynamic. Leitch displays his intimate understanding of on-screen action sequences with his purposeful framing and playful camera angles. His understanding of form and knowing how to utilize the actors gives each stunt an air of authenticity, elevating it far above your typical action film.
The director’s stylistic choices extend beyond the action sequences and sound choices. Leitch channels the graphic novel “The Coldest City” and emulates the color palette while remaining faithful to the Cold War era film aesthetic. He juxtaposes the low-saturated color quality with the neon vibrancy of the 80’s club scene. The saturation levels help set the tone for the film, with the undersaturated scenes mirroring the cold, calculating nature of our protagonists, the oversaturated ones occurring during moments of intense passion or lust, and all the ones in between being the control group that shows normal, present day interactions.
No matter how well-armed Atomic Blonde is cinematically, it can’t defend itself from its own weak story. Kurt Johnstad attempts to adapt the graphic novel in the same style he adapted 300 for the film, but they are extremely different creatures both narratively and stylistically. “The Coldest CIty” is essentially an espionage story with more than a couple of complex twists and turns. Trying to cram the amount of exposition needed in an under 2-hour film proved to be an unsuccessful mission for Johnstad. His style tends to favor less complex stories that place a higher emphasis on visual storytelling over a scripted one, much like 300 in all of its dialogue-light, slow-motion glory. For the most part, the story development in Atomic Blonde is convoluted and too underdeveloped to be satisfying. Most of the film is a giant flashback, visiting many different points in the past and a couple in the future, all while telling the story from an interrogation room. As hard as the story is to follow, and even as unsatisfying as the story’s twists and reveals are, you still wind up with a basic idea of what is going on and how you arrived at its predictable conclusion. This film is much less about the destination and much more about the physical and visual journey you take to get there.
Lorraine Broughton, our atomic blonde, is a badass character on paper, but it takes the skill and talent of Charlize Theron to truly bring her to life. Theron has been honing her action star craft since before the disappointing Æon Flux in 2005 (where her performance was the only redeemable part) and continues to impress with characters like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. She adds a ferocity and absolute commitment to the role that shows through her interactions with all the characters, but especially in the way she did most of her own stunts. Her romantic chemistry with Sofia Boutella is electric. Every scene they interact together in becomes an instant highlight in the film, rivaling the riveting action sequences. Between the carnal fervor and gratuitous carnage exists James McAvoy’s character to provide needed comedic relief and anecdotal musings as only he can deliver. He channels his character from Filth, and no matter how crude, vulgar and offensive his character is, we just want more.
Even though Atomic Blonde (and to an extent the graphic novel) was written by men, directed by men and heavily drenched in the male gaze, it still provides an empowering female character in a male-dominated genre starved for them. This film doesn’t have the same world-building wonder as the John Wick universe, but Charlize Theron’s performance makes up for that with her world-shattering fighting skills and complex sexual identity.