Thursday 10 August 2017
Fact Is Satchel
2017 USA Directed by David Leitch
UK cinema release print.
Atomic Blonde is a new film directed by former stuntman David Leitch, whose only previous feature length movie directing was some uncredited scenes on John Wick (reviewed here). He is also currently helming the second Deadpool movie and he directed the mini Deadpool teaser earlier in the year. Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and, for once, the Hollywood “based on a” machine got it right... it really is based on a graphic novel and not a comic book being mistakenly confused for one.
After a brief prologue putting the story into political context in the 1980s with the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall, the film starts off with a punchy sequence in which a man is running from some unspecified ‘bad guys’ but winds up dead with, amongst other things, a bullet in his skull, all set to the strains of the New Order song Blue Monday (although I’m not entirely sure whether the version used in the film is actually the New Order version). We then sweep into another sequence as we see the main protagonist, British Intelligence Operative Lorraine Broughton (for the purposes of this review) played by Charlize Theron, in the aftermath of the mission which we will see in the ensuing film. We start off with her in a bathtub, filled with ice, to help her badly swollen and bruised body.
We then see her putting up some make-up in the mirror as David Bowie’s song for Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People, Putting Out The Fire, plays on the soundtrack in a somewhat stolen moment, it seems to me, from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds... in which it's used for a very similar sequence (this film also has another connection with Inglourious Basterds in the fact that popular German actor Til Schweiger turns up in a few scenes). Following this, Lorraine goes to her debriefing in London, sat in a room in the company of Toby Jones and John Goodman as she tells the tale of her recent, disastrous mission in Berlin. The majority of the rest of the film is all flashing back from there (with occasional jumps back to that reference frame) as she goes on a mission to find a microfilm list of all the intelligence agents operating in the world... the very list which the gentleman at the start of the movie was killed for. She is also told to look out for a traitorous ‘double agent’ who goes by the name of Satchel, in order to unmask Satchel and probably terminate with extreme prejudice.
And so she goes to Berlin and, before she can meet her main and thoroughly ambiguous contact David Percival (played by James McAvoy) she is already ‘made’ by the ‘opposition’ and gets herself into trouble which she handles in a most spectacularly violent fashion and then... the film goes on like this for pretty much the rest of the running time. And it’s really not a bad movie, to be honest. A quite tough action piece, nicely framed and well edited so that it’s not going to lose the audience and with the kind of brutal edged comic book violence in it that we’ve seen in, for example, the John Wick films.
Now, there’s a lot going on here in terms of ‘story smoke’ in this one and, ultimately, because it’s the kind of film that delves into the murky underworld of spy fiction, where you never know who is telling the truth and who is working for who, the plot is somehow best left ignored, in my opinion. If this was a Bond or Jason Bourne film, people would be complaining about the simplicity of the plot but, because it’s a different beast, the story doesn’t mean too much, to be honest. The identity of Satchel is treated almost like the identity of the killer in a giallo movie, in that there’s so many people it could be that it’s almost impossible to tell which one it is... and it also doesn’t matter, as it happens. The plot is really, more so than many movies, just a framework to hang the stupendously cool action sequences from and to focus on the ice cold personae projected by Charlize Theron, who does wonderfully well in this role. Indeed, she had eight trainers for this movie and was training alongside Keanu Reeves while he was preparing for John Wick - Chapter 2 (reviewed here) but she still managed to crack two teeth while filming, by all accounts. You can tell by her performance here that she really threw herself into the physicality of the role.
So, yeah, the fight scenes are quite brutal in some places and, rather than being the ‘hit someone, kill someone else before killing the other person you just hit - stop - repeat’ style of combat used in the John Wick movies (which is effective enough and I love those films), the intensity of the fight scenes in this are perhaps even more interesting in that they are more intimate with people taking a long, long time to become incapacitated or die. So, less body count (although it is pretty high) and more the strife and struggle of a well choreographed series of set pieces, in this movie. One of the things I liked about it, regarding this, is the way that both heroine and bad guys are shown to be so damaged and exhausted from their fights that they both have trouble getting up to carry on the combat. There’s one sequence in particular, where Theron’s Atomic Blonde is trying to get a character called Spyglass, who has memorised the troublesome list and who is played by Eddie Marsan, out of the country but she goes on the offensive and enters a multi-story building with him to attack some snipers. In the long, drawn out and chaotic fight scenes which take place here, it was great to see Theron’s character getting punch drunk and falling about all over the place rather than just be the 100% killing machine a lot of these kinds of heroes normally are in these sorts of action spectacles.
My one slight problem with the film was the casting of Sofia Boutella as another agent who becomes Lorraine’s lesbian lover during the course of the story (no spoilers here... it’s in the trailers, people). Toward the end of the movie, Boutella’s character comes under some extreme duress from a third party and it was in these moments that I realised that this actress is going to be typecast if she’s not careful because, the baggage she brings to the role via other movies doesn’t help the credibility of her character here. After all, the agent she is playing is quite vulnerable, almost to the point of naiveté but, the roles I associate her with are the killer blade-legged lady from Kingsman - The Secret Service (reviewed here) and The Mummy in the recent version of... um... The Mummy (reviewed here) . So she really should be able to take care of herself in any situation, is what my brain was telling me. I know that’s wrong and it’s maybe just me but I had a similar ‘unwanted baggage’ problem with Uma Thurman in Paycheck. I’d fairly recently seen her kicking all kinds of backside in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies so I wasn’t prepared, in that particular case, for her to play a character who wasn’t able to take on anything less than a gazillion bad guys and come out on top. So, yeah, just a slight problem with Boutella’s character here too but... like I said, that could be just unique to me.
The end reveal of the Satchel character comes a lot after you are expecting it to be revealed, assuming you’re not taking anything you see and hear at face value and after a few fake endings. I’m delighted to say I completely guessed the identity of Satchel wrong, so that made me smile a little. That being said, since that identity really could have been anyone, the cleverness of the reveal comes not from the who but from the ‘what’ and ‘ why’ of the character than anything else. Sorry if that seems a little cryptic but I’m trying to keep this review as spoiler free as possible. Either way, the film doesn’t end when you think it’s going to end and there are a couple of little twists which, while seeming fairly unimportant after the violent carnage of the rest of the story, still give the film a nice little end play to add a little more depth to the tale.
Other than that though, a nice piece of modern, kinetic cinema with a strong soundtrack of 1980s songs (plus covers), some cool performances all around and a few striking visual touches here and there. Watch out near the end, for example, in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment where the blood spray of someone’s brains being blown from their head adds a beautiful splash of red punctuation to the artwork on the wall behind, putting a bloody orifice/red set of lips in the mouth of the subject of the painting (I don’t know if that was serendipitous or planned but it looked really great). There’s also a great pseudo-eighties graphic design style to the way the expository typography is used on screen (with the accompanying swooshing sound of a spray paint can) and even a moment where the moviemakers nearly break the fourth wall when the director uses the flashback format to legitimately have the film you are watching burn up in an imaginary projector, so to speak. So, some nice moments here. I was a bit disappointed, given the setting of the film and the title, that the Blondie song Atomic was not used once in the movie, given that its minimalistic vocals and pounding instrumental could have been put to good use here (not to mention the content of those few lyrics) but, that niggle aside, it’s a really cool flick and if you are a fan of action cinema, pretty much unmissable as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if this movie was anything like the graphic novel it was based on but, as a film, Atomic Blonde is a great night out at the pictures so... give this one a go, if hard edged action is your kind of thing.