Every now and then a movie comes out that proves “style over substance” isn’t the awful thing it’s believed to be. We’ve discussed this in past reviews, but when style is all-consuming, when it is the primary purpose of a film, it becomes the substance. And when that style is good enough to sustain an enjoyable feature length film, does a lack of “substance” as it’s traditionally understood (narrative and thematic substance) matter?
The film follows Atomic Blonde (Charlize Theron; The character isn’t really named Atomic Blonde, but I’m going to call her that) an MI6 secret agent, sent to Cold War-era Berlin to retrieve a piece of dangerous intelligence that’s fallen into the wrong hands. She meets Percival (James McAvoy), a more permanently stationed MI6 agent who has made himself comfortable in the city’s political chaos (set in 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to come down.)
It’s a loving homage to spy thrillers, that never quite transcends homage. It’s generic narrative is an empty shell, there to be filled to brim with cool jackets and shoes, spectacular action sequences, and neon coated conversations about secrets. It veers close to parody, narrowly missing that classification due to it’s stone-cold sincerity. It’s almost Edgar Wright-esque in that it’s both in love with a genre, while also being insanely good at being that genre.
On paper the plot sounds boiler plate, and maybe it should have been. What unfolds is the narrative equivalent of my headphones when I pull them out of my pocket. A tangled mess, impossible to unravel. However, unlike my headphones, there’s little need to comprehend. Atomic Blonde is an aesthetic masterpiece.
The film is obsessed with fashion, and has an old school appreciation smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor. While the art design is infused with late 80s aesthetics, the cinematography is undeniably modern. When not in the icy blue, desaturated, low contrast dystopia of East Berlin, West Berlin’s nightlife paints the film with rich neon color. The handheld camera whips around dynamically, while clearly capturing the tightly choreographed fights. These scene are as spatially coherent as they are brutal.
Another thing Atomic Blonde has in common with Wright is it’s tight editing often set to the beat of pop music. (In one scene Atomic Blonde plays a pop song on a stereo system in anticipation of an action scene, not unlike Wright’s Baby Driver from earlier this summer).
The sound design is strikingly good. The film is fetishistically obsessed with ice cubes. Whether Charlize Theron is plunging into a bright blue ice-bath, or pouring Stoli over rocks, the cold, clinking, crackling of ice is an incredibly satisfying sound motifs. The film also does some interesting things with sound-perspective with the music. In one scene a KGB agent punishes some pesky capitalist teens for skateboarding. He taunts them, by playing music from their boombox and demanding they breakdance for him. When the KGB agent snaps and unleashes violence on the kids, the music shifts between the compressed boombox speakers a full non-diegetic version, often on the cut/beat, punctuating the brutality.
This brutality permeates the action sequences. Every punch has visible consequence on the characters’ bodies. Atomic Blonde’s face grows progressively bludgeoned as she wades through dozens of Soviet thugs. No matter how absurd the violence becomes, the raw physical result is almost disturbingly grounded in reality. Great use is made of the found-objects-as-impromptu-weapons trope. Atomic Blonde’s resourceful cleverness never ceases to tickle.
If there’s one spy movie trope/narrative element that detracts from the films entertainment value, it’s the unnecessary framing device. The film spends too much time with Atomic Blonde in a dimly lit interrogation room with her MI6 superior (Toby Jones) and a senior CIA officer (John Goodman). She smokes a cigarette, glances suspiciously at the one way mirror, and comments on the plot throughout. These scenes stall the films breakneck momentum and does nothing to clarify what’s going on, so aside from Jones and Goodman’s always fantastic performances, I don’t understand why these scenes exist.
Cutting this framing device and streamlining the busy narrative probably would have made Atomic Blonde a stronger movie. You don’t need to understand what’s happening to enjoy the film, but it might be easier to enjoy if you don’t have to hurt your brain just to realize it was for naught. Still, for me the frustration was outweighed by the sheer joy of the experience. Though flawed, Atomic Blonde achieves what it sets out to be: a kickass action flick.
I give 7 Soviet-era ice cubes out of 10.