Kick That Story’s Ass Charlize, or, Atomic Blonde

atomicblonde

Turtleneck attack!

Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch’s Cold War spy flick based on Antony Johnson and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, blends the tried and true cinematic espionage of a Bond film with the contemporary sensibilities of 007’s latest action hero progeny. If Casino Royale was Bond meets Bourne, Atomic Blonde is James meets John.

Wick.

Of Baba Yaga fame.

It’s not exactly a coincidence, given Leitch had a part in directing the original John Wick, but the blend of Wick action and Bond tradecraft never quite comes together, the latter bogging down the former.

Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton, the titular Atomic Blonde. Against a backdrop of the waning days of the Cold War Broughton is tasked with going to Berlin to retrieve a list of undercover operatives before Russia can get ahold of it. It needn’t be more complicated than that, but to its own detriment Atomic Blonde wades deep into narrative twists and turns. There is a great film in Atomic Blonde, be it a more straightforward take on the material or a far denser take that delves into the culture built around the Berlin Wall and the denizens of that culture who have built a life for themselves out of the dizzying tensions and labyrinths of espionage and are force to reckon with the possibility of the Cold War ending. But Atomic Blonde isn’t that simple or that complex.

Theron engages is a series of thrilling, well-choreographed, in-frame fight sequences executed with the precision and minimal edits of a John Wick film, but the synthesizer-drenched transitions from one sequence to the next don’t adhere to the same sort of lethal efficiency. Theron, who far exceeds the confines of the film she’s in, is an utter badass, but fight as she might bits of a middling complex narrative cling to her. You can feel them falling away as she beats the shit out of Russians, just to glob on all over again when the action stops and unwieldy story resumes.

Atomic Blonde could be said to be the opposite of Dunkirk in terms of storytelling. Where Christopher Nolan’s latest utterly deprives the audience of exposition and narrative flourish in hopes of further immersion, Atomic Blonde outright insists on exposition, nailing the script to the ground with narrative and making a tent out of what could have been a kite.

Charlize Theron kicks so much ass that she is able to repeatedly, though always temporarily, escape the overbearing script through brute force. When she’s let loose, minutes away from exposition on either side of the film’s running time, she is astounding, carrying herself with a physicality that intimidates and lends gravitas to her fights. She is so good, in fact, that despite any reservations I have about Atomic Blonde, I can’t help but hope for a sequel because damnit, Charlize Theron is an absolute badass and I want to watch her beat the crap out of more chumps.

For whatever facets of John Wick or James Bond Atomic Blonde takes inspiration from it never fells like a knock-off of another franchise, but as a whole it doesn’t live up to its own potential either.

 

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Just a Movie Standing in Front of an Audience Asking Them to Think It’s Dope and Hilarious, or, Fate of the Furious 

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For your consideration.

Fate of the Furious is an exercise in the absence of subtext. Or at least intentional subtext.

You can watch F8 and try to look beyond Vin Diesel driving an immolated car in reverse so the flames make it go faster. You can search for meaning in The Rock curling a concrete bench while mean-mugging The Stath. You can stare at an empty page and try to will a thought-provoking blog post on the eighth Fast and Furious film into existence, but that way madness lies.

I could try my damnedest to gnaw meat off of a bare skeleton and wax poetic about F8’s exploration of the conflict between the technology of freedom (cars, Coronas) versus the technology of oppression (surveillance, automation, white dreads), about how Dominic Toretto and fam’s real battle is one for the autonomy of motion in a world that is increasingly capable of pinpointing the individual, but it wouldn’t ring true.

There are no political, philosophical or spiritual strings controlling the action and events of Fate of the Furious. There is only one agenda in this film: convince you that these people are so, so cool and that Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny.

Perhaps what NPR fails to grasp about Fate of the Furious is that it isn’t that Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny (he is) and that these people are so, so cool (I mean…) that drove (right? Because cars?) Fate of the Furious to the highest global opening weekend of all time, it’s that the pursuit of that cool and that humor is so genuine, so unencumbered by agenda.

Sometimes, The Rock hanging out of a jeep to kick a missile shot by the nuclear submarine that’s chasing him across a Russian ice shelf is just The Rock hanging out of a jeep to kick a missile shot by the nuclear submarine that’s chasing him across a Russian ice shelf.

Fate of the Furious was never going to be for everyone. It was always going to require us to watch with what can only be referred to as “Vin goggles.” This is a movie, and a franchise, that isn’t trying to trick, or wink at, or subvert. It’s a movie that pulls out all the stops, or at least $250 million worth of stops, to get you to say “boy those people are so, so cool and Tyrese Gibson is so, so funny.” And there’s something utterly delightful about someone spending $250 million dollars just to get you to think they are so, so cool and so, so funny.

Mad Max: Fury Road, or, Cypress Hill Up in Here

Mad Max: Fury Road is insane. Not like “whoa bro that kickflip was insane” insane. Like full on Frank Miller Batman insane.

CRAZY PEOPLE!

CRAZY PEOPLE!

The Mad Max franchise has always boasted an eccentric mental state, but Fury Road trades in the post-apocalyptic anarchy and straightforward brutality of its progenitors for a more nuanced take on the philosophy of might is right.

The primary difference between the psychos in Road Warrior and the psychos in Fury Road? Ideology.

Max makes his worldview clear in the film’s opening monologue. He lives to survive, and nothing in the movie hints at him surviving for anything more than the sake of survival. He’s high-functioning feral, a mindset Tom Hardy’s spastic performance and the film’s frequently sputtering low frame rate perfectly portray. His aspirations and motivations are as cut and dry as the bleak desert landscape he wanders.

When Max, barebones survivalist, crosses paths with Immortan Joe, a wicked tyrant with a death grip over a small desert oasis, and his gang of war boys, insanity ensues.

Immortan Joe’s motivations are pretty straightforward. Power, and the pursuit of maintaining it, push him. But his henchmen are a different story. The War Boys push harder than the cronies in Mad Max or Road Warrior. They follow Immortan Joe’s orders rabidly, their hearts skip a beat at a glance from their warlord. They lay down their lives in a blaze of glory all in the name of Immortan Joe, because what Joe lacks in being a robust, glistening gimp he more than makes up for by wielding a mythology that speaks to the desperate multitudes scavenging the nuclear wastes not only for food and water but for some semblance of meaning to their bleak lot in life.

CRAZY PEOPLE!

MORE CRAZY PEOPLE!

The inhabitants of the Mad Max franchise have been motivated by revenge and gasoline and Tina Turner, but in Fury Road their given a higher calling: an afterlife. Immortan Joe promises his War Boys a seat at his side in Valhalla and in return they drive into tornadoes and enact spectacular kamikaze attacks with Jerry-rigged bang sticks in his name.

The insanity on display in Fury Road is frenetic, relentless, potent. It’s the insanity of ideology. The maniacal confidence only those who have found their answers can boast. It’s a study in the contract between idol and believer: power for the few, who concoct purpose for the many in return.

Fury Road puts that contract on display under the harsh desert sunlight with nothing around for miles and miles to distract from the psychosis of it all.

It’s one hell of a backbone to give a two hour car chase, and that’s to say nothing of the film’s refreshingly thoughtful handling of women in an action movie, or the extensive background work writer/director George Miller did to portray sexual servitude.

Every explosion and car flip is all the more exciting because of the film’s underlying current of insanity. It’s the film’s heartbeat, throbbing just beneath the surface during even its few subdued scenes, and it gives Fury Road a jolt of intellectual stimulation amidst the utter chaos of a bunch of cars kicking the shit out of each other for two hours.

Fury Road, which was originally set to go into production in 2001, didn’t just crawl its way out of development hell, it blasted its way out, V8 roaring in utter triumph.