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.

 

The Bourne Formula, or, Jason Bourne (The Movie, Not the Guy)

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Bagger Vance?

I loved the late NBC show Hannibal. For a good half of its three year run I considered the show immaculate, and while in retrospect it still remains one of my all-time favorite television series there was a moment, one small scene, about halfway through the show’s second season when I realized exactly what a Saturday Night Live parody of Hannibal would look like (a battle of increasingly elaborate, metaphorical pontifications, each more vague and intangible than the last, showcased from angles seemingly achieved by rolling the camera like a dice and filming from where it landed. Give me a call Lorne). It was a moment where all the variables on the screen showed themselves individually, rather than as a fanciful, wholly engrossing equation. It was a moment that was exactly equal to the some of its parts, revealing to me for the first time exactly what those parts were, how they worked and how they came together.

Jason Bourne (the fifth installment in Universal’s Bourne film franchise, not the primary protagonist of four of those installments) is a two hour revelation, due largely to trademark Bourne cinematography gone entirely off the rails.

We’re talking Cujo bonkers.

The initial Bourne trilogy boasted briskly-edited, fast-paced action with tight camera shots that put the audience in the middle of Bourne’s skirmishes. The action was quick and kinetic and shaky, but despite the complaints of some viewers I never found it incomprehensible. And that’s not nostalgia talking, that’s me watching the fight scenes from Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum right now as I write this.

There’s nothing to latch onto in the fights of Jason Bourne (the cinematic vehicle in which the fights in question are contained, not the fictional participant in said fights), no brief respite from furious camerawork to give you a shot of a guy getting shanked in the hand with a pen or beat on the nose with a magazine or punched in the face with a book to anchor you amidst the choppy proceedings. It’s spastic camera work and flailing limbs completely unhinged, and when something of note does finally happen there seems to be a dogmatic insistence that it be shown from the least exciting angle possible. That awesome shot of the K.O. from the trailer? An over-the-shoulder close up.

Without the excellent action I’d come to expect from Jason Bourne’s adventures I was left to actually sit and think about Jason Bourne’s adventures and realize that Jason Bourne’s adventures are kind of just highly tactical episodes of Blue’s Clues where Matt Damon runs around a foreign city, gets in a skirmish and finds a clue that unlocks another five seconds of his flashback of the week and points him toward the foreign city hiding the next clue until he gathers up enough clues to confront the milquetoast old bureaucrat whose been hounding him with a cookie-cutter, bad-Bourne henchman.

I suppose in the back of my head I always knew that’s what the Bourne movies boiled down to, but it took Jason Bourne (the box office champ for the weekend of July 29th, 2016, not the highest paying Uber passenger of 2002) to shine a light on all the strings and mirrors. In that way, Jason Bourne (the motion picture, not The Martian) has a lot in common with the fourth outing of another super spy.

Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film, is arguably the installment that solidified the Bond formula that would be repeated for decades to come. There were variables of the formula in Dr. No and From Russia with Love, but it wasn’t until Goldfinger that the story beats and character archetypes of your standard Bond adventure were really molded to perfection. And it wasn’t until Thunderball’s rehashing of those beats and archetypes that it was made pretty clear what a Bond movie was going to be for the next fifty-plus years.

Even last year’s Spectre conformed to the same blueprint as Goldfinger and Thunderball. The franchise has gotten no shortage of hits and misses alike out its equation. Perhaps the same will be said of the Bourne franchise in a few decades.

Having a stringent narrative backbone doesn’t automatically mean churning out tired rehashes. Imposing rules on a narrative can breed creativity and tinkering with an existing formula over time can serve as an interesting metatextual barometer for the time and culture in which the installment was made. So, you know, that’s something.

But a stringent backbone means you have to have some damn good vertebrae and unfortunately the impenetrable fights and chases in Jason Bourne (the movie I’ve been talking about every time I refer to Jason Bourne, not the character I’ve never been referring too every time I say Jason Bourne)  leave it slouching.