There’s no point in resisting it — we have to admit that we live in a world where Oscar-winning actors with actual acting chops gladly appear in movies based on comic books (or “graphic novels” if they want to sound classier) to establish their movie-star bones. It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad about drawing-based literature; certainly Frank Miller is the literary superior to Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer, and don’t even get me started on E.L. James. But just the trigger-words “comic-book movie” suggest a two-dimensionality; it’s as if the books aren’t works in and of themselves, but storyboards waiting for a movie to be filmed around them. You sense many filmmakers don’t feel the need to “add to,” but to “cleave to:” The action scenes have been drawn, might as well shoot them.
The fight stagings in Atomic Blonde, which comes out Friday with (Oscar-winner) Charlize Theron as the putatively title character (nobody ever calls here that, nor does it make actual nuclear sense), are competently if not expertly executed: a level above cheesy chop-socky, not as viscerally fluid as Paul Greengrass manages (though it bears mentioning that the director, David Leitch, has mostly worked as a stuntman, including several Bourne films). And the plot — a Cold War thriller set in Berlin just before the wall comes down, with an MI6 agent (Theron) sent to retrieve “the list,” a catalogue of undercover agents, before it falls into the hands of the Commies (a classic McGuffin if ever there was one) — has a kind of retro appeal. In fact, hands-down the best thing about the film is its setting, and the reminder of how bitchin’ the music of the late ’80s/early ’90s was.
But the details that make it a real movie, a narrative you can get behind with characters you understand, are lacking. The story hops around like a frog from lily pad to lily pad, from character to character, set piece to set piece, with no real understanding or even care for what happens next or why. Theron’s character is supposed to be undercover, but is “made” before she leaves the airport. She spends the rest of the movie walking between East and West Berlin as a tall, platinum bombshell, yet no one can find her, even though her apartment is bugged and there’s a double agent stalking her (if you can’t figure out who that is within the first 10 minutes, it’s only because it seems too obvious). Sure, it’s a summer action film — “don’t be so critical” people like to say. But hey, why not hold the filmmakers to a minimum standard of sensibility? War for the Planet of the Apes does it with monkeys; can’t we ask as much of Charlize?
One of the puzzling aspects is the casting itself. For all her kick-assery, Theron seems to best a lot of much bigger men physically completely out of proportion with her frame and the absence of a golden lasso. Until everyone shoots at her in an extended chase/face-off sequence, no one shoots at her, preferring garrotes, knives and insults. (“I’m gonna kill you, bitch!” one villain smirks, second before she runs a corkscrew threw his trachea; “Am I still a bitch?” she comes back… uh, yeah, definitely!) Even the appreciative preview audience laughed as some of the will-not-die moments. Theron also has a nearly expressionless face between her eyes and lower lip, as if Botox was handed out for free 30 year ago. And James McAvoy is horribly miscast as a weaselly spy who has gone native; he is too Michael J. Fox, to play that kind of hardened predator.
Still, when Atomic Blonde isn’t going through the motions, it does score a few points — for the aforementioned soundtrack, but also the frank lesbian relationship between Theron and a French spy, played by Sofia Boutella (The Mummy). The film does not use the relationship as heteromale fantasy not as a gimmick nor even as a statement, but as a plausible complication of spy life. It’s the most interesting part of the film and would have made a better focus … if only the storyboards didn’t stand in the way.
Two and a half stars.