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Atomic Blonde movie review: bland ambition

Atomic Blonde yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The living, breathing, bleeding life of the breathtaking fight scenes cannot overcome confusingly twisty spy intrigue and multiple male gazes on the story.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women; love spy stuff
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Berlin, 1989. The Wall is about to fall, but the Cold War isn’t over yet. MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron: The Fate of the Furious, Kubo and the Two Strings) is sent in to retrieve a missing list of all spies and operatives on all sides, if she can find it before the Soviets do. It’s an “atomic bomb of information,” not least because the list includes the identity of a double agent known as Satchel. Atomic BlondeI guess because she’s so hot? *facepalm*tweet — is told in flashback, as Broughton is debriefed back in London after the mission. Did she succeed? Who is Satchel? Is it MI6’s man in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy: Split, X-Men: Apocalypse)? (He seems pretty shifty.) Can we believe anything she is telling the spymasters, either MI6’s (Toby Jones: Morgan, Anthropoid) or the CIA’s (John Goodman: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Kong: Skull Island)?

“And this is the Wall. We’re thinking of knocking through, going for an open-plan sort of city...”

“And this is the Wall. We’re thinking of knocking through, going for an open-plan sort of city…”tweet

The answers are more convoluted than even a wannabe-twisty spy thriller needs to be, when it isn’t totally clichéd (“Trust no one,” Broughton was warned, natch), and the intrigue is more confusing than these blah characters earntweet: they’re simply nowhere near engaging enough to hold our interest while the plot warps unnecessarily around them. Style, though: Atomic Blonde is dripping with it.tweet Of course there’s lots of 80s pop and rock, especially with a German inflection — Alles klar, Herr Kommissar? — and retro brands — PanAm! — but it’s during the inevitable fight sequences that the movie springs temporarily to living, breathing, bleeding life.tweet Stuntman David Leitch makes his directorial debut, and he knows not only how to stage hand-to-hand combat but how to shoot it, too, so that it’s breathtakingly thrilling. The centerpiece sequence is a massive battle of fisticuffs that ranges up and down the stairwell of an apartment building, and appears to be one long uncut blitz of punches and bullets that then escapes into the street and escalates through the city. (The cuts are sneakily hidden; Leitch has said he was inspired by a technically similar sequence in Children of Men.) It makes for a refreshing change for the action genre, too, that Broughton and her male opponents actually suffer as human beings really do when taking a beating: their brawling is messy, nasty, and takes a physical toll so palpable that we can almost feel it.

Sharing a sympathetic wince of pain with Theron is the closest we come to feeling anything at all.

Alas, sharing a sympathetic wince of pain as Broughton struggles to her feet to finish off a bad guy is the closest we come to feeling anything at all here. And with a screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (300: Rise of an Empire, 300), based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde struggles to overcome the sense that it’s more male fantasy than feministtweet: Broughton may fight in practical flat boots, not impossible stilettos, but gender-swapping her French contact in Berlin from the source material, so that it’s now a woman agent (Sofia Boutella: Star Trek Beyond, Kingsman: The Secret Service) whom Broughton has sexytimes with, plays more like dudely delusions about lesbians than anything progressive. Neither Theron’s influence behind the scenes as a producer nor her onscreen command and competence can quite prevail when multiple male gazes are at work.tweet

yellow light 2.5 stars

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Atomic Blonde (2017) | directed by David Leitch
US/Can release: Jul 28 2017
UK/Ire release: Aug 09 2017

MPAA: rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, very strong language)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • LaSargenta

    Yeah, these were pretty much our complaints, but, we all enjoyed it for the truly amazing fight sequences. And the music.

  • Tyler Foster

    Ironically, it was Theron who guided the gender-swap.

    We had this same discussion on facebook after the trailer came out, and I still think, even if it doesn’t change how you feel about Atomic Blonde, that there is a relevant or important discussion in the idea that sometimes lesbian and bisexual women’s ideal vision of what goes on screen isn’t going to be distinguishable from the stereotypical “male gaze.”

    I suppose this nags at me because learning this was no different than anything else I’ve learned about feminism or sexism or misogyny: I was listening to women. The lesbian women I know were into the movie, and not in a “this’ll do” way, in a “this is finally what I wanted to see” way. I hear their enthusiasm for what they feel is representation and I can’t help but wonder if it’s being undercut or shuffled off by the male gaze criticism, even if there’s no denying that men wrote and directed this movie. (At least one of those lesbian friends was ultimately heartbroken by the movie, not because the movie was afflicted by male gaze, but because it fell into — SPOILER — the “bury your gays” trope.)

    For what it’s worth, I did think the film earned some points in this area by actually returning to their relationship more than once, beyond a single sex scene, although I too was disappointed by the outcome of that storyline.

  • Joe Blow

    This movie was one big phony appeal to the huge egos but small minds of feminists, especially the awful dyke ones. Spy movies in general are juvenile and unrealistic, but this adapted comic book pushes the envelope

  • althea

    Blow, Joe.

  • amanohyo

    Look at the comment of Tyler Foster right above you. Thoughtful, nuanced, curious, both informed and informative. It offers a personal perspective but leaves the door open for other opinions and viewpoints. It contextualizes the movie, the review, and the comments that came before it. It invites further thought and enriches the discussion from an adult perspective in which there there are no easy answers.

    Now read the comment below it (mine or yours, doesn’t matter). Declarative, closed-minded, over-generalizing, thoughtless and unrewarding. It offers nothing of value to anyone that is not already heavily biased against feminism. So juvenile, insecure, and out of date it could have slipped from the lips of Holden Caulfield, although even Holden would have had the maturity to provide additional evidence for his fragile declarations.

    This is not the place to debate feminism. You found the movie to be juvenile and unrealistic. Okay, why? Is it because you find a man in a ludicrous over-the-top action scene much more believable than a woman? Was the action poorly choreographed and/or performed? Was there something about the writing or plot that you didn’t like? If you want to communicate, please give us more than hazy, manospheric ramblings.

    You don’t like feminists, we got it the first time. This is a weird place to be so proud of that, but maybe you need some attention. Okay, here’s a nice juicy pellet. Putting your obvious dislike of feminism aside, what specifically made this movie feel phony to you? How could it be more authentic? Maybe compare and contrast it with a similar movie that you did like? Keep it real for us Joe. Expand our minds. Redeem yourself.

  • Bluejay

    It’s not the feminists who have small minds, Joe.

  • LaSargenta

    (At least one of those lesbian friends was ultimately heartbroken by the
    movie, not because the movie was afflicted by male gaze, but because it
    fell into — SPOILER — the “bury your gays” trope.)

    Yeah, that burned.

  • Joe Blow

    Then your mind is sub-atomic and nasty like most feminists schweins.

  • Joe Blow

    Exactly the kind of snarky ugly remark that feminists are known for

  • Joe Blow

    Your not only a wordy pompous snot nosed pseudo intellectual, but are totally wrong. Most of the replies to my comment are the typical hateful, spiteful, personal feminist comments
    BTW, since you have mediocre reading inference skills I grew out of those sort of movies when I was 16. I don’t care about the fight choreography either. That puts the movie on the level of a music video.

  • Bluejay

    Oh, that’s just sad, Joe. Bye now.

  • amanohyo

    So you posted an angry comment below the lukewarm review of a movie in a genre you don’t enjoy and some internet feminists were mean to you? Is it possible that some of these people are upset that you chose to sling broad insults and air general grievances in a place typically used for discussing a particular movie?

    Returning to a site that caters to people that disagree with you could be a cry for help or attention, but I’m not sure what you want other than a place to dump all of your fear and insecurity (that’s what I tend to use the internet for, at least). You must like movies on some level if you made your way here.

    If your goal is to “win” the discussion via ad hominem, then I concede. Your description of me is correct on all counts. If your goal is to discredit modern feminism – I repeat, this is not the place. You might as well try to argue against the theory of evolution in the middle of a biology lecture on splicing cuttlefish genes. Feminism is one of the foundational assumptions of the site. If you’re just here to slam your head into a brick wall and complain about how much it hurts, find another site. If you honestly want to change people’s minds or open their eyes to your truth, you’ll have to set your anger aside and let your guard down a bit.

    This is primarily a site about movies. What has shaped your taste in movies? There are a lot of people that share your values, and my goal is to understand them better by understanding you. In order to do that, I am encouraging you to be a bit more introspective.

    For example, these days I tend to prefer darker, slow-paced sci-fi fantasy films over stylized women/men with guns flicks because I enjoy imaginative visuals and fantasy films often do a better job illustrating the horrors of violence rather than simply glorifying it. It’s difficult for me to care anymore about a main character whose chief skill is that he or she is really good at shooting people. It just kinda leaves me empty. I’d rather see a slow, bloodless build-up to a single battle between two well developed characters than watch a dozen nameless NPCs get slaughtered every twenty minutes so the protagonist can score cool points on their way to the final boss fight. I still enjoy a silly sword fight or balletic martial arts battle though, probably because they are less connected to reality than guns. You say you’ve outgrown this type of movie too – what genres do you tend to enjoy now and what do they offer that this one doesn’t?

  • sometimes lesbian and bisexual women’s ideal vision of what goes on screen isn’t going to be distinguishable from the stereotypical “male gaze.”

    There’s really nothing surprising about this. Women grow up in the same patriarchal culture as men do. We internalize the same ideas about what is sexy and what is feminine and what is appropriate for women (and so on) as men do. And even when you’re aware of that cultural programming, it’s often *still* difficult to overcome.

    I can’t help but wonder if it’s being undercut or shuffled off by the male gaze criticism,

    As I and others have said many many times before, it’s okay to like problematic things, and even to gloss over the problematic aspects in order to enjoy the rest of it.

    the “bury your gays” trope

    Yes. And the relationship also falls into the familiar dynamic we see of — SPOILER — women dying to support a protagonist’s journey. Yes, this is slightly better than when it’s a male protagonist, but it’s still a tired trope about female characters being more useful (narratively speaking) dead than alive. If the movie had retained the French agent as a male character and he died in the story, the trope is sidestepped.

    And here’s another issue: the male agent who dies at the very beginning of the story, the one who had the list and from whom it was stolen: Broughton apparently was NOT sexually involved with him in the graphic novel. (I haven’t read it, but I’ve read about it, and specifically about the movie’s alterations from the source material.) That relationship has absolutely no bearing on anything in the plot, and the movie would have been precisely the same without the movie adding in some flashbacks of her having sex with him. What is does add, however, is male fantasy: Broughton is a woman who would have sex with dudes; she wouldn’t be uninterested. Now, I’m not saying that bisexual characters don’t deserve to be at the center of their own stories, but this isn’t an honest or nuanced depiction of bisexuality.

  • huge egos but small minds

    Haha. Hahahahaha.

    It’s hilarious how some men lose their shit when they aren’t the center of attention.

    You’re gone. Don’t come back.

  • I’ve banned him, so he will not be replying. I doubt he’d be capable of supplying the thoughtful criticism you’re after, anyway.

  • leah

    Also, re this assertion: ‘sometimes lesbian and bisexual women’s ideal vision of what goes on screen isn’t going to be distinguishable from the stereotypical “male gaze.” ‘
    Call me sceptical but this comment sounds vaguely disingenuous, like something straight dudes say in defence of the male gaze as being in some way universal ‘because lesbians’, which I’ve seen a fair bit (even on this very blog a couple times).
    The lesbian/bi women who I know/read are often critical of gay women’s sexuality as depicted in the mainstream by straight men (for example Blue is the Warmest Colour was roundly lambasted by gay women for its depiction of laughably unrealistic lesbian sex, basically straight out of the straight man’s ‘gay’ porn playbook). Looking around at some online lesbian reaction to Atomic Blonde – and having asked a gay woman I know who’s seen the movie – Tyler Foster’s anecdotal take does not appear to be one predominantly shared by actual lesbians.

  • thisplaceisshit

    DAH PATRIACRHCY!11 Thanks for the 2016 election.

  • something straight dudes say in defence of the male gaze as being in some way universal ‘because lesbians’, which I’ve seen a fair bit (even on this very blog a couple times).

    I hope I haven’t said anything like this! (I don’t think I have, but I’m still learning too.) I know I have said that if lesbians incidentally find something hot in a male gaze looking at women onscreen, that in no way invalidates all the problems with the overwhelming dominance of a male gaze.

    Tyler Foster’s anecdotal take does not appear to be one predominantly shared by actual lesbians.

    I hope Tyler will chime in on this, because I don’t want to speak for him, but knowing what I know about him, I think he was trying to figure out why his lesbian friend(s) was okay with the film, when it seemed perhaps contradictory to him that she/they would be.

  • leah

    Oh no I wasn’t referring to you in regards to that comment, sorry that wasn’t clear, I meant in the reader’s comment section (I can’t remember the specific movies/topic threads).
    On one lesbian-oriented movie message board thing I read now and then there was a discussion about Atomic Blonde as yet another entry in the weird ‘fish mouth’ kissing phenomenon so often depicted in lesbian sex scenes directed by straight men, according to the commenters, quite interesting and informative (and kind of hilarious, I’ll forever be on the look-out for the fish-mouth now). I do remember it in Atomic Blonde and thinking it weird and contrived-looking but didn’t realise it had a name and everything as a hot topic.

  • Danielm80

    The troll who was here last week probably thought you were talking about Roxane Gay. He decided her last name was a reference to the Homosexual Agenda.

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