Women are always getting in the way of progress, aren’t they?
In Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron has a go at solidifying her status as a new action icon and she mostly succeeds, though the movie has problems aplenty. The movie has a blast when it’s focusing on the action or, somewhat more troublingly, the oozing sexuality of its star, but it has odd pretensions to being a more or less serious, if stylized, spy-thriller and the cross-double cross-triple cross plot is mostly tiresome and clichéd. More about Theron herself later, but the rest of the cast is well above market. James McAvoy really steals the movie for me as a dissolute, louche British agent that’s gone native in Berlin; he’s the kind of guy who gets smashed in the head with a bottle, picked up by the throat and thrown across the room, but he still has his cigarette coolly tucked in a corner of his mouth when he hits the ground. He’s delightful. John Goodman, Toby Jones and, underused as always, Roland Moller lend all the quirk and gravitas only they can. Eddie Marsan as a nervous, harried defector is quite wonderful; he’s the only performer in this film that lifts his character past cartoonish and I found myself genuinely caring about him in an emotional way. I didn’t have that reaction to any of the other characters, but this isn’t a super-critical remark. This film is really at its best when it’s cartoonish. A slow-motion shootout in a ritzy suite is a surprising late sequence, but the real masterwork here is that insane action sequence that takes place mostly in a deserted apartment building. It’s skillfully edited to look like a single shot; there’s no way it could be, but it’s still visually stunning as our characters fight their way up the elevator, down the stairs, through an apartment, back onto the street, into a car and on we go. It’s a masterful piece of cinema and rightly takes its place in the action sequence hall of fame right from the jump.
But let me comment briefly on Theron. She’s fully committed to creating a new icon of cool and she does a great job, but it’s jarring to see her as sexualized and objectified as she is here. I suppose this means that women in action movies are being treated this way a lot less often, which is probably good, but it’s very odd to compare the way she’s treated in Mad Max: Fury Road with the way she’s treated here. It’s not that she isn’t still attractive in Mad Max or that she isn’t competent and capable here; but those two movies really point up what we mean when we say “overt sexualization.” Now, let’s not quibble; Theron is pretty close to a perfect specimen of the female body and, at over forty, she can show it off and be proud all she wants and no one’s going to complain. But a lengthy lesbian subplot is only an excuse for some really sleazy exploitation that felt pretty condescending and gross to me. I’m not asking that we get so “enlightened” that we pretend that there’s something innately unseemly about either a man or a woman showing off their physical appearance & sexiness in a movie or a TV show. I am saying there’s a fine line between giving Theron’s undeniably sexuality and physical near perfection its due in an artful and compelling way and screaming everything to a stop for a lengthy section of exploitative titillation and doubtless everyone will disagree about the line, but I felt like this movie crossed it a bit too often for my taste. But the film is still a winner in a lot of ways. The action is stupendous, the performances are at best brilliant and at worst a lot of fun & the film captures a chilly, broken-down atmosphere really well. Still, it isn’t the masterpiece I was hoping it would be; it takes too much time on a needlessly complicated, predictably twisty, tiresome story and it lets its appreciation of Theron’s beauty and sexuality too often cross the line into an uncomfortable, tacky ogling. But it’s a damn good time at the movies and, hey, they can’t all be John Wick; this one is trying anyway. 3 stars.
tl;dr – well-acted film has some bravura, thrilling action sequences, but it also has a clichéd, tiresome plot & the sexual objectification gets tacky at times; still, a solid, entertaining action movie. 3 stars.