Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde should have been a fun, trashy lark: a spy film set in 1980s East Germany, starring Charlize Theron as a badass, sexy assassin. Instead, it is a sad simulacrum of such a film; enough of the necessary elements are there to suggest likeness to a great spy film, but it lacks the substance and specificity to make it work. Atomic Blonde is a surface depth, greatest hits of pulp spy stories and 80s culture cobbled together from secondhand sources. Even more disappointingly, the action, overseen by director David Leitch (co-director of John Wick), while including some impressive set pieces, is too-little and by-and-large mostly underwhelming. It is, unfortunately, a boring film, which is perhaps the worst thing that could be said about such a confection.

The film tells the story of MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), dispatched to Berlin in the late days of 1989, just before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, to retrieve the list of all active agents working in Berlin, on all sides, before an unknown duplicitous agent known as Satchel is able to sell the list to the other side. In Berlin, she seeks out her British local contact (James McAvoy) and a defecting Stasi agent (Eddie Marsan). The film unfolds mostly within the framing device of Lorraine being interrogated by her MI6 and CIA superiors (Toby Jones and John Goodman, respectively) telling the story of what happened and listening to the recordings she made of her activities in Berlin. Rather than setting the stage for a twisty tale full of surprise revelations and uncertain allegiances, it comes across as a terrible cliché; sadly, characters who you suspect to be double agents are so obviously so it drains any suspense from the film entirely. And the final twist revelations that reshuffle our understanding of the film feel perfunctory and disconnected from the film as a whole.

My complaints about this film can largely be explained by two related major shortcomings: firstly, the unrealistic cookie-cutter nature of the narrative and aesthetic features of the film. On Twitter and Letterboxd, I called the film a video game, and my complaints about this aspect are only mitigated by the fact that this similarity is so strong, I feel the video game aesthetic must be intentional. But the people who made this film (and those members of the viewing public who end up liking this film) seem to see plot in a very video game-like manner—first this happens, then this, reload, shoot, etc. It drains scenes of any surprise, as it is like watching the characters execute predetermined movements rather than respond honestly to their environment. Also, adding to this suspicion, in one scene a character is wounded badly, but he finds a medkit, a white box with a red cross on it, like one might find a health power up in a game and then seems fine; I suppose that showing the medkit is meant to allay our concerns that they might die from their wound, apparently.

Further to explaining Atomic Blonde’s weightless and empty sense of spectacle, whenever the film tries to convey feelings and atmospherics, like a character being cold or disconnected and alienated, the filmmakers resort to shorthands that don’t reflect real experiences. Feeling cold? Here, wrap a blanket and sit in front of this flaming garbage can. Feel sad, but still want to look badass? Drink tons of Stolichnaya on ice (I hope the vodka company paid for the copious product placement). Every shot, every song used in this film is the most obvious choice possible in the circumstances.

The second major failure of the film is the non-specific use of context, whether setting, time period, or soundtrack. This makes Atomic Blonde play like a film about 1989 made by someone whose only knowledge of the period comes from a generic movie from the 80s or a random New Order record; the film lacks any genuine engagement or affection for the time period and setting. This mutes the actual function of nostalgia in the film. A good nostalgia piece would mine the specifics of the time to evoke a bygone era. Unfortunately, this film feels unmoored in time. The obviously CGI backdrops and generic tourist shots of Berlin evoke nothing more than a Cold War video game. Framing the whole story around the fall of the Berlin Wall, a major world event that means a lot to many people, comes across as a crass marker of time, adding nothing to the story, and even borders on being an offensive manipulation of history.

The soundtrack is especially egregious on this count. Multiple New Order cuts are used, but they fail to evoke the correct sense of time. I was alive in 1989, by the way, and little in this film evokes the feel of the era, from either my own experiences or other works of art. This was the summer of Batman, of Michael Jackson’s Bad, but the film wants to use signifiers from the first half of the decade for the most part. With regard to New Order, the “Blue Monday” 12-inch mix came out in 1983, and by 1989 the band had moved on to new different sounds, influenced by their time in Ibiza. I find this lack of specificity is distracting. Is a character flying to London? Cue The Clash’s “London Calling.” Also, just because it’s in the 1980s and set in Germany, doesn’t mean you have to use Nena’s “99 Luftballons” multiple times. Oh yeah, that song is from 1983 too. Perhaps the film should have been set in that year, but then the film couldn’t have mined the aforementioned Fall of the Berlin Wall window-dressing. The film’s use of popular culture reflects not a nostalgia fetishist’s desire for detail and deep-cuts (see for instance, Edgar Wright’s amazing soundtrack for Baby Driver as a counterpoint), but the shallowest signifiers of time and place that actually unmoor the film from its setting and time, rather than anchor it.

Perhaps I’m too harsh on the film. Perhaps instead the film speaks precisely to the nostalgia of the postmodern invoked by theorists like Frederic Jameson, who identified how postermodern nostalgia was defined by pastiche and a lack of historicity. Here, we may paraphrase Jameson’s diagnosis of postmodernity and see that the relationship between the history projected on screen for our entertainment is completely divorced from the lived experience of the era, of the everyday life of those who experienced that time and who care about it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good genre pastiche and I’m a sucker for a well-curated soundtrack. I don’t need every historically set film to be “accurate.” In fact, there’s a telling bit in one early scene in Atomic Blonde when David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” is used. That song was used to great effect in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, though it was written for Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake of Cat People. This film uses the cue, only to trade on the secondhand cool of Tarantino’s film. But Atomic Blonde knows only that people like that song in that context, but not why. The film certainly doesn’t go about integrating its pastiche into a satisfying piece of entertainment. In the end, Atomic Blonde is sunk in its botched execution. I can imagine a successful version of this story that I would have loved. Sadly, the sting of unrealized potential makes Atomic Blonde a shockingly disappointing film.

3 out of 10

Atomic Blonde (USA, 2017)

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, based on the comic series The Coldest City by Antony Johnston; starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Toby Jones, John Goodman, Eddie Marsan, Til Schweiger, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård.