Atomic Blonde movie review: bland ambition

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.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women; love spy stuff
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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 Blonde — I guess because she’s so hot? *facepalm* — 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…”

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 earn: 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. 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. 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 feminist: 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.

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LaSargenta
LaSargenta
Fri, Aug 11, 2017 3:47pm

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

Tyler Foster
Tyler Foster
Sat, Aug 12, 2017 5:07am

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.

LaSargenta
LaSargenta
reply to  Tyler Foster
Sat, Aug 12, 2017 8:57pm

(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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tyler Foster
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 11:42am

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.

leah
leah
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Aug 14, 2017 6:57am

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  leah
Mon, Aug 14, 2017 4:46pm

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
leah
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Aug 15, 2017 3:18pm

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
Danielm80
reply to  leah
Tue, Aug 15, 2017 5:11pm

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.

Tyler Foster
Tyler Foster
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Aug 26, 2017 7:56pm

No, it’s that some of my lesbian friends are SO THRILLED at the way Atomic Blonde presents a lesbian / bisexual relationship, that it so clearly scratches an itch for them that other movies are not scratching, I struggle with how to balance my awareness of the male gaze with a segment of an audience that is in no uncertain terms saying “this is something I’ve been looking for.”

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tyler Foster
Tue, Aug 29, 2017 4:03pm

It’s okay for it to be both.

thisplaceisshit
thisplaceisshit
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Aug 14, 2017 10:29am

DAH PATRIACRHCY!11 Thanks for the 2016 election.

Tyler Foster
Tyler Foster
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sat, Aug 26, 2017 7:52pm

“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.”

This gets to the root of my frustration. How is this not a dismissive response? This reads like, “the lesbians you know don’t actually know what she wants to see on screen because the patriarchy has influenced their perspective.”

Admittedly, we may be thinking of different things re: “male gaze.” Specifically, the thing that I see appealing to my friends is the aggressiveness of the sexuality on display in Atomic Blonde, or Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden, to name another example, which in my mind is also going to be the thing that gets the quickest knee-jerk reaction that a movie is a male fantasy. You can kinda trace it back to the patriarchy, in that most movies are male-gazey, and then you get the movies that push back against that, but then those movies tend to be of a certain tone or style. Some like the more earnest empowerment messages of a Wonder Woman or Ghostbusters (2016), but then they also want to see the more direct sexuality of these kinds of films. The gist of it from what I can tell is that the former can frustrate them by becoming so much about or a commentary on the frustration of what they were already feeling, whereas an Atomic Blonde or Handmaiden just is what it is, and doesn’t dwell internally on where it exists within the sphere of representation in movies. I get that I’m a man, I get that the movie was written and directed by men, but it seems to me like you’re arguing that either a) there aren’t women who earnestly or sincerely want to get an eyeful of Charlize Theron’s body in the way Atomic Blonde presents it, b) that audience is too small to matter, or c) it would serve a greater good to ignore that audience. It’s the opposite of the old saying: you open one door, a window closes. Where’s the balance for this?

As for the bit about the male agent, while I wouldn’t argue with any of your points, the fact that his character never seems emotionally relevant to Theron’s in the way that Boutella’s does kinda makes me shrug at that, personally. I forgot there was an actual sex scene.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tyler Foster
Tue, Aug 29, 2017 4:02pm

a) there aren’t women who earnestly or sincerely want to get an eyeful of Charlize Theron’s body in the way Atomic Blonde presents it

I’m sure there are such women. But as I’ve said many times before, just because a few women find male-gazey stuff appealing doesn’t mean that it’s not male-gazey! We can stop talking about this stuff as male-gazey when there are LOTS of lesbian directors using their female gaze to look at women. Then at least we’ll have a basis for comparison.

b) that audience is too small to matter, or c) it would serve a greater good to ignore that audience.

I am not saying either. I am saying — again — that it is incidental and accidental that lesbians may find male-gazey stuff appealing. It’s great if they do! But lesbians are NOT being catered to here. They ARE being ignored. The fact is that WE DO NOT KNOW what women shot *specifically* to appeal to other women would look like in a Hollywood blockbuster.

How is this not a dismissive response? This reads like, “the lesbians you know don’t actually know what she wants to see on screen because the patriarchy has influenced their perspective.”

It is absolutely not “dismissive” to say that we are all influenced by what our culture tells us, and that we all aren’t even aware of how narrow what our culture tells us is! Anyone can want whatever they want, but that is shaped by culture, in positive and negative ways, and by “negative” I mean that we might not know that we want something if we’ve never seen it! But we do know how to chose among what we are being offered.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Aug 30, 2017 7:30pm

Given that Anglo-American culture tends to spend most of its time promoting heterosexual lifestyles and catering to heterosexual tastes, I find it very ironic that you even bother to bring it up here, MaryAnn.

In any event, I don’t doubt that culture influences us in many ways but what Mr. Foster describes seems more like a pushback against contemporary culture.

Or to put in more simpler terms, people are complicated. And their actions cannot always be explained by “culture.”

Tyler Foster
Tyler Foster
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Sep 04, 2017 6:56pm

Except it’s not like lesbian content by lesbians for lesbians doesn’t exist. The reaction I see to it is pretty varied, including a lot of hatred for it (mainly because it fits a certain pattern or has its own tropes, including being non-action, romantic, and tragic).

I’ll bow out now, but my bottom line is that I take issue with “a few” — I think you’re underestimating, and that “incidental and accidental” are the only ways in which this could cater to lesbians.

I agree that we should have lots of lesbian directors using their female gaze to look at women, but I’m not going to be surprised at all if a big, significant chunk of it, free of external pressure to be anything else or do anything else, would look /exactly/ like Atomic Blonde (well, minus the “bury your gays” trope), based not on anything I feel about it, but simply what I’m hearing from the lesbians I know.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Tyler Foster
Sat, Sep 09, 2017 10:44am

Except it’s not like lesbian content by lesbians for lesbians doesn’t exist.

Not in Hollywood it doesn’t. Not in mainstream entertainment. Not in any form that someone who isn’t specifically seeking it out would stumble across.

Tyler Foster
Tyler Foster
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Sep 11, 2017 6:21pm

Well, that wasn’t really the context. Even aside from the fact that I was talking about the people I know, I think it’s clear we’re discussing the people who would be seeking it out.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
Sat, Aug 12, 2017 3:03pm

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
althea
reply to  Joe Blow
Sat, Aug 12, 2017 4:24pm

Blow, Joe.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
reply to  althea
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 2:27am

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

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  Joe Blow
Sat, Aug 12, 2017 4:57pm

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.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 2:33am

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.

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  Joe Blow
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 5:08am

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?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 11:44am

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.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Joe Blow
Sat, Aug 12, 2017 7:13pm

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

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
reply to  Bluejay
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 2:25am

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

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Joe Blow
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 3:24am

Oh, that’s just sad, Joe. Bye now.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Joe Blow
Sun, Aug 13, 2017 11:43am

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.

Stacy Livitsanis
Stacy Livitsanis
Mon, Nov 13, 2017 2:46am

Reading this comment section has been far more rewarding than watching Atomic Blonde.

Kielioss
Kielioss
Mon, Oct 29, 2018 7:43am

I believe the reason why Lorraine was gay/bi is because MI6, post-World War II, liked to recruit alcoholics, drug addicts, and homosexuals because they had usable experience in holding a big secret. That was transferable into being a spy. This is also why David was an alcoholic and delved into drugs.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kielioss
Thu, Nov 01, 2018 11:57am

So the movie needed to also be totally male-gazey to be accurate about spycraft?

Kielioss
Kielioss
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Mon, Nov 05, 2018 9:13am

Haha! no I was just informing about why Lorraine was gay/bi. The male-gazey part was due to the film being directed by David Leitch. There was a reason why he was an uncredited co-director for John Wick

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:10pm

It’s tempting to say that I liked this movie better when it was called No Way Out but then I remember that many of the things I most hated about that 1987 movie — the arbitrary death of a female character, the pointless twist ending, etc, — were things I hated about this movie.

It does not help that I saw Salt today. As tempted as I am to crack jokes about poor Angelina Jolie doing the Sydney Bristow routine and going all Alias on us, I still liked that movie better than this one — and for good reason. It was the “Cold War” thriller that AB should have been but wasn’t.

Anyway, I can see why MaryAnn was so disappointed in this movie. I expected more from it myself — and now I feel foolish for doing so. Oh, well.