SXSW Film: Fueled by Charlize Theron and life in 1989, ‘Atomic Blonde’ packs a mighty wallop

Man, I really wasn’t expecting Atomic Blonde to be the internet sensation it’s turned out to be. That trailer (which I luckily didn’t watch before seeing this movie) is driving film twitter nuts, and I’m now sure it’s going to blow up when it hits screens this summer. A late addition to the SXSW headliners, it had all the makings of the kind of movie you’d skip in favor of going to the secret screening they have every year. I’m pretty glad I went: For one, I don’t know if I have the stones to sit through the Trainspotting sequel surrounded by cast and crew, and because I got to watch one of the decade’s best action sequences and the pretty okay spy movie it’s surrounded by.

Atomic Blonde is one hell of a convoluted movie, and I’m not super sure what’s a spoiler in this case, given that the fan excitement for this movie really started on Friday when that trailer dropped, so I’m gonna be super careful (I really don’t want you sending some Martin Gore lookalike to my house at two in the morning with a knife because I spoiled this for you). It’s 1989. Music is excellent. The Soviet Union is collapsing. Every spy in the world is in jeopardy of being exposed, thanks to the theft of a dossier called Spyglass by a rogue Russian agent. Charlize Theron plays the hyper-badass MI6 Agent tasked with going to Berlin and tracking that bad boy down, and also exposing a notorious double agent codenamed Satchel (no, not Page). Along the way, she’ll have to work with the Berlin Station Chief (James McAvoy) who likes mesh sweaters as much as he likes deception. And sure enough, she starts to have her suspicions about him, and everything devolves into an orgy of hot Cold War-era action.

So let’s get the hard part out of the way: This is the kind of movie meant for those who thought Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wasn’t enough like a James Bond flick. It wouldn’t be a bad merger, perhaps if it aped the former as well as it did the latter. The espionage intrigue that makes up the first half of this movie alternates between attention-grabbing and completely fucking boring, which is something I think it’d be hard to say about a Le Carre adaptation when it’s done right. It also suffers from the same kind of fatigue-inducing twistiness that sunk a few of the Mission Impossible movies, because you eventually stop giving a shit when it’s not really being straight with you and you’re unmoored in a sea of questions. The beauty of John Wick is its simple and effective hook, and I think some of the people closest to the creation of that film learned some of the wrong lessons. It only really starts to pick up once Leitch seems to realize that he is an exceptional director of action.

And boy, when he does, the movie gets totally fucking brilliant.

There’s an extended sequence in the middle done in a seamless unbroken shot, and it rivals any action scene done in John Wick. It floored my audience to the point that they were clapping anytime something cool happened, which was almost once every thirty seconds. That sequence alone is worth the cost of admission, and I imagine it’ll catch like wildfire with audiences in need of air conditioning on a hot August day. Of course, there are plenty other great fights throughout the latter half of the movie, including a very fun sequence in a car near the beginning, but that one is a true classic. You’ll know it when you see it.

There’s a lot of great imagery as well, as the grays of the Berlin environment are made colorful by graffiti and neon lighting all only enhanced by the fantastic soundtrack (though, at times the needle drops are too effective- my audience almost split twenty minutes before the film ended because of how pitch-perfect one was), and the costuming is fucking brilliant. Theron may be the best-dressed woman in any 2017 release, and the movie wouldn’t work nearly as well without her stoic performance carrying a lot of the bloat mentioned above. She’s utterly badass, and has a raw physicality to her fighting that I don’t think a lot of people are used to in mainstream film from their leading ladies. McAvoy is excellent as well, and he’s weaselly in the most wonderful of ways. He’s a shrewd manipulator masking himself as a drunken raconteur to integrate himself better with those on the other side of the wall. Supporting players like Toby Jones and John Goodman acquit themselves well, and we’re reaching a point where the former should simply accept that he will inevitably be M in the Bond films one day and use this role as practice.

All in all, Atomic Blonde is the thinking man’s “turn your brain off and enjoy” film, one that really doesn’t make much sense at the end or while you’re watching it, but is excellently acted and crafted, and has some truly enthralling scenes within its runtime. I’m still excited to see what Leitch is planning to do with the Deadpool sequel, and given this film I think it might be a more appropriate venue for his violent talent. It’s always weird to see somebody try and shun their greatness for whatever reason, and though ultimately Atomic Blonde is a great little roller coaster ride, it’s not on the most stable of tracks.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017.