I wasn’t sure how to start this review. So I’m just going to say, I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
I genuinely like Charlize Theron. I’m not a superfan to the point that I watch everything she comes out with, or treat her as my “exception” the way my straight friends do. But she is a bonus for any movie. Unfortunately, like another highly anticipated action movie that Charlize stars in, Aeon Flux, this film both falls short and doesn’t really do justice to the source material.
Atomic Blonde doesn’t fail because of its titular character, though. Problems like this tend to stem from writing, direction, and editing. Since the movie has been out for some time at the writing of this review, I’m just going to tag SPOILERS here, so I can break down the movie on a macro level.
At its core, Atomic Blonde is a spy/action film. But between the 80s kitsch, the “war is hell” brooding, and the over the top violence, sex, and unintentional oddity, the film just isn’t able to decide what it wants to be. The result is a confusing 1 hour and 55 minute rush, after which I still had to explain the plot to the friend I came with. She said, “I just accepted that was confused and focused on Charlize’s hair.”
Okay, so we have two overarching problems that have led to this situation: an ineffective narrative frame and failure in direction/editing to highlight the emotional resonance points.
The “telling a story to an outsider” frame is fine as a narrative device, and in some points it can be necessary. Here, we cut between the main action of the movie to Lorraine (Theron) as she’s debriefed by her MI6 superiors and a CIA agent on her mission in Berlin to reclaim a list of the names of every operative in the field. Sometimes, we DID need to build a through-line for the audience to follow the difference between the real story and the story as Lorraine shares it with her superiors. Sometimes, though, these cuts provided a drag on the main action, slowed the narrative, and disrupted the flow of events, making it even harder to follow than it already is.
I imagine they used this frame as a crutch to explain what was going on, since the film has trouble in moment to moment coherence. It tries so hard to be clever, and there is so much focus on action rather than plot, that it can be difficult to grasp why individual actions are happening. The larger plot is pretty graspable. David Percival (James McAvoy) is shady as fuck, and Lorraine may be playing both or more sides. Done. The rest? Well, there’s a reason I had to explain the plot to my friend, who is a college literature professor.
Other parts just don’t make sense. This isn’t a wacky, madcap movie, and yet when a guy gets stabbed in the face and doesn’t bleed, there is zero explanation. Same guy, later on Lorraine beats the shit out of him and stabs him in the throat with a corkscrew. Generally, when your throat is cut, you die, but he reappears in the next scene. I literally turned to my friend and asked if this guy was supposed to be a zombie.
Our second big problem: The emotional story is flat and misses the important moments. There are times when you want to watch something brainless, but this story very much wants to have a bigger message, and it is leaning on the source material, The Coldest City, for that message. We got it: There’s a toll on the operatives during the Cold War. But we get that mostly because the characters say so, rather than the elements of the movie coming together in a powerful way.
Instead, they rely on metaphor (Lorraine soaking in an ice bath—where did she get all that ice btw?) and setting to give off the feelings of coldness and breaking down. McAvoy’s character in himself signals what we’re supposed to get, but when they miss so many moments for the main character, it becomes inexcusable.
For example, there is no reason not to make more of the moment when it becomes apparent that the very day after Lorraine loses Spyglass while trying to transport him across the border between East and West Berlin. No reason, whatsoever, and they could’ve shaved a few minutes off of one of the entirely too long fight scenes to do so.
I’ll give you an example. The use of music in this film was mostly haphazard. It didn’t suit the tone of each scene at all. But they did have “99 Luftballons,” which could’ve been used to better effect by having it play over a more chaotic scene towards the beginning, and then use the slow version as she realizes that 20-minute fight scene she just suffered was for no reason. Or they could’ve used Siouxie Sioux’s “Cities in Dust,” instead of wasting it on a scene where Lorraine is looking at a watch.
Just a suggestion.
The second major part of this lack of emotional resonance is that we don’t see Lorraine change much. The above example is one moment when we should be able to directly see the separation between Lorraine as a spy and Lorraine as a human being. But even without that, Delphine (Sofia Boutella) character’s is designed to bring this out for her. Lorraine getting involved with her in spite of her cold exterior is important. But they waste their opportunity by not slowing down enough, or making the contrast big enough.
And yes, I’m directly stating that Delphine’s death was over the top and pointless both socially and narratively. Lorraine was always going to kill Percival. She didn’t kill him just because he murdered Delphine. And we could see her as a human in a much more impactful way if they hadn’t decide to Bury their Gay.
The scene with Lorraine and Delphine in bed, when Delphine says she looks different when she’s telling the truth—THAT is the start of showing Lorraine’s emotional insides. Having Delphine die, brutally, at the hands of Percival (who only suspects that Lorraine might do something to him, and apparently isn’t smart enough to read the letter she left behind despite being at this game for years) was a waste. It was a waste of a lesbian character of color, and it was a waste of an opportunity. You want to see Lorraine be human? Have her fight for Delphine. Have her fight with Delphine. Have her lay an injured Delphine back onto her bed and beg her to get out of this game, showing us her tender side, and hey, she could still cry.
I doubt that many people came out of the theatre thinking that it was really very touching how Lorraine cried with Delphine’s body twisted in the background. It’s not enough. And Delphine’s death changed nothing. So why do it? I mean, that’s generally what a writer’s question should be in including an element into their story: Does this change anything? Does it have any impact? If the answer is no, then maybe your genius plan isn’t worth the time it takes.
Obviously, Atomic Blonde has a lot of problems. What does it actually deliver on? Action, mostly. Lorraine has a realistic and brutal fighting style. (If only her opponents always remembered to bleed?) And the sex scene between Lorraine and Delphine was well-done. Though, knowing that they don’t develop the relationship and Delphine dies anyway makes it feel as though the scene is there for titillation only. Also, my friend would want me to add that Lorraine’s hair and clothes were amazing.
Other than that, the structure of the movie could use a lot of cleaning up, and relying on the dead lesbian trope to try to create an emotional impetus that was already there is more than unforgivable.
My hope is that there is no Atomic Blonde 2, partially because that means Lorraine doesn’t get to go home and get her life back like she wanted. But if there is, I’m hoping that they 1) get a different director (maybe Patty Jenkins will be done with Wonder Woman 2 by then), and 2) pull an Exhume Your Gays and bring Delphine back to life.
If that Russian henchman can do it, I feel like Delphine should be able to, as well.