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Saturday, December 09, 2023
From Left: David Leitch, Charlize Theron and James McAvoy talk about "Atomic Blonde."

From Left: David Leitch, Charlize Theron and James McAvoy talk about "Atomic Blonde."

SXSW 2017: Style cannot overcome substance in ‘Atomic Blonde’

Sunday night kicked off with “Atomic Blonde,” a film based on the graphic novel, “The Coldest City.” Set in Berlin before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the film stars Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 agent who teams up with Berlin spy David Percival, played by James McAvoy, to take down a group of spies who assassinated an undercover agent. David Leitch directed the film, having made his directorial debut with the action-hit, “John Wick.” He also as an extensive background as a stunt coordinator, working on other films like “Captain America: Civil War” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.” The combination of a spy thriller, an experienced action director and seasoned actors should theoretically make a great formula. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen with “Atomic Blonde.”

Some stylistic elements and performances do work well in this film. The action sequences are, as to be expected from Leitch, well-choreographed and well-shot, particularly in a long take near the climax of the film as the camera follows Theron fighting off multiple henchmen up and down staircases and throughout the rooms of the building. Theron also proves an apt and willing action star. Theron said she trained extensively in the months before filming, learning to “throw big dudes” for her role, and I completely bought her as the badass spy she portrayed.

The cinematography is also gorgeous; every shot drips with beautiful, glossy imagery. There’s a motif with ice in the film, a nice nod to the title of its source material. It also uses color effectively to set the tone for different scenes.

However, the polished look of “Atomic Blonde” is also part of its downfall. Flash ultimately outshines substance in an attempt to cover up a confusing, muddled story. The film failed to engage me from the very beginning, and that’s not something a viewer should experience in an action movie—and from an action-oriented director no less. The impetus of the plot was unclear, thereby making Theron’s and McAvoy’s character motivation also unclear.

I wanted a little more depth and background from the character Lorraine to give me a reason to become emotionally invested. Lorraine could certainly hold her own against the villains but, at times, she comes across as an over-sexualized female character to gawk at, specifically in a scene between Theron’s character and a French spy played by Sofia Boutella; it tries to be scandalous and seductive but ultimately objectifies both women. Unfortunately, “Atomic Blonde” misses the mark in trying to positively represent sexuality and femininity.

“Atomic Blonde,” for all its star-power and shiny production values, cannot overcome its flawed narrative. Style never comes before story for me, and I expected more from it.

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