GIRL POWER: Atomic Blonde

When we first meet Lorraine Broughton, she’s submerged in a bathtub full of ice water. As she emerges, she extracts a couple of ice cubes and deposits them in a glass, which she then fills with vodka.

It’s a badass introduction for a woman with ice in her veins. Lorraine is played by Charlize Theron, and she is effortlessly cool. Her coolness is immediately apparent. The movie she stars in is Atomic Blonde, and it doesn’t need to have people talking about how cool Lorraine is, her coolness speaks for itself. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the rest of the film.

Image: Focus Features

I have a theory about coolness. I call it, creatively, Colin’s Coolness Theory. I am open to suggestions for better names. The main principle of CCT is that coolness speaks for itself. Everyone knows that some loudmouth going on about how cool he is is not actually cool. If you have to tell people how cool you are, then you are in fact uncool.

Atomic Blonde doesn’t tell the viewer how cool its protagonist is, because it doesn’t have to. But the rest of the movie tries too hard to live up to Lorraine’s coolness, and it can’t quite do it. The movie was directed by David Leitch, a veteran stuntman who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski. Stahelski went on to direct John Wick Chapter 2, while Leitch decided to make Atomic Blonde his first solo directorial feature. Unfortunately, while John Wick 2 is one of my favorite movies so far this year, Atomic Blonde is a much more mixed bag.

The main problem I have with Leitch’s film is that it is overly stylized. It’s full of neon lights and pounding 80’s music, heavy on the bass, percussion and synthesizer. I don’t have much of an ear for this kind of music, and it all started to sound the same to me. I get that the music is meant to set the mood, but unlike other music-heavy films like Baby Driver or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Leitch’s use of the music in Atomic Blonde doesn’t resonate, it gets repetitive.

Let’s talk about the story. Atomic Blonde is a Cold War spy thriller that takes place in Berlin in the late 80’s, just a few days before the Berlin Wall came down. This setting has made for great spy fiction in the past, but Atomic Blonde’s storytelling is lacking. Lorraine is sent to Berlin to investigate the death of a British agent, who was also in possession of a list revealing the identities of every undercover operative in Berlin. This information could be devastating if the Russians get hold of it, and Lorraine is ordered to find the list, at all costs. There is also a Soviet defector code-named Spyglass, who claims to have memorized the entire list. Lorraine is also ordered to extract him. On top of all this, Lorraine also has to track down the man they suspect of killing the British agent, and find and eliminate a double agent code-named Satchel who has been feeding the Soviets intelligence for years. Lorraine’s got her work cut out for her.

She is put in contact with David Percival, the head of station in Berlin. Percival has been in Berlin for a long time, and has gone native, meaning that his superiors no longer trust him. He seems to enjoy being in Berlin a bit too much. His shiftiness is apparent from the moment we first meet him. Percival is played by James McAvoy, who is a great actor. His character here is poorly written however, and it is obvious that he is Up To No Good. The viewer doesn’t trust him, and neither does Lorraine.

As well she shouldn’t, because Percival is an asshole. I like James McAvoy a lot, but his character here is so unpleasant I hated him immediately. He is an abrasive, sleazy, duplicitous bastard who smokes and swears constantly. You might argue that the viewer is not supposed to like Percival, and you’d be right. But the movie goes too far in depicting him as a corrupt, amoral douchebag. It’s completely obvious that he’s bent, and some of the suspense is taken away by his almost-comically nefarious behavior. The plot gets so convoluted, and piles on betrayal after betrayal, that by the end it’s hard to care about any of it.

The movie’s cast also includes John Goodman, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Sofia Boutella, who was the best thing about this year’s Mummy movie. Here, she plays a young French intelligence operative named Delphine, and when she meets Lorraine…well, let’s just say that sparks fly. It’s a great cast, but it’s Charlize Theron’s movie, and she owns every frame of it.

Image: Focus Features

For all the movie’s many flaws, Lorraine is one of my favorite new movie characters of the year, and Theron is magnetic. She is a stone-cold badass, and Theron proves herself to be completely convincing as an unstoppable action hero. I’m not forgetting about Mad Max: Fury Road, because she was great in that movie too, but in Atomic Blonde her role is much more physical. The action scenes in Mad Max are largely vehicle-based, whereas in Atomic Blonde it’s all up close and personal.

David Leitch’s storytelling skills could use some work, but his skill as a director of action sequences is considerable. Atomic Blonde has one of the best action sequences of the year, a brutal, close-quarters brawl that probably lasts around ten minutes and is filmed to appear as one continuous camera shot. It begins in a stairwell and goes into and out of several rooms, before going back outside and ending in a car chase. It’s fantastic, and Theron kicks ass. The movie doesn’t hesitate to show Lorraine getting her ass kicked as well. She gives better than she gets (since by the end she’s alive and her opponents are not) but she takes a lot of punishment in the process.

By the end of the epic battle, she’s coughing and gasping and limping, her face is bruised and cut, her eyes are bloodshot and streaks of red highlight her hair. This movie gets rough, and it captures how exhausting it would be to fight like that for an extended period of time. When it’s over, Lorraine can barely walk. The movie also features the most persistent henchman of the year. This freaking guy gets stabbed in the face with a car key and just will not quit. He keeps showing up when you think that, surely, there’s no way he could get up from that.

Image: Focus Features

Atomic Blonde is a deeply flawed film, but it’s one I will watch again in the future. Maybe the plot will make more sense to me on a second go-around, since it was pretty baffling the first time through. Despite the movie’s issues with plot and characters, the action sequences are top-notch and Charlize Theron’s lead performance is terrific. There’s a good movie lurking in here somewhere, and if David Leitch can tone down the stylization and get a better handle on the storytelling, he could be a great director. Atomic Blonde doesn’t live up to all of its promise, but it doesn’t completely squander it either, and I do hope that Theron gets to make more action movies, because she’s great at it.

Coming up next, it’s the long-awaited film adaptation of The Dark Tower, Stephen King’s epic sci-fi/fantasy series. It stars two of my favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba, so hopefully it’ll be good. Tune in next week to find out.

MAX TO THE MAX

Mad Max: Fury Road had a long road to cinemas, but holy crap was it ever worth it. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, director George Miller (who I’m pretty sure is a mad genius) had the idea for the film as far back as 1998. Quoting Wikipedia, “Miller conceived of a story where ‘violent marauders were fighting, not for oil or material goods, but for human beings’.”

Miller was almost set to start filming in the early 2000’s with Mel Gibson reprising the title role, but the project was shelved after terrorist attacks made safety an issue in the locations they were going to film in, and then of course there was Mel Gibson’s much-publicized breakdown that made him a toxic commodity in Hollywood.

Now, seventeen years after Miller had that idea, it’s finally here, and it’s awesome. I saw the film twice over the weekend, and it only took two viewings for the movie to skyrocket on to my all-time favorite movies list. Both times I saw it, I wanted it to start again as soon as it was over, and as I write this now, all I want to do is see it again.

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The movie is more of a reboot than a sequel, since it doesn’t directly follow the previous films. It follows the same basic continuity, but it stands on its own as an individual movie and it is not necessary to have seen the previous films in order to enjoy it (although that certainly helps).

The movie does take a page out of The Road Warrior’s book, however, in that it starts with badass opening narration, delivered this time by Max himself.

“My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood. I am the road warrior. I am the one haunted by the living and the dead. My world is reduced to a single instinct: survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me….or everyone else.”

Awesome. In addition to being spine-tinglingly badass, this narration serves a dual purpose: it sets up the world of the film for new viewers, and it’s a callback to the previous films that fans will pick up on.

From there, the movie goes full throttle as Max is promptly captured by fanatical followers of the cult leader/warlord Immortan Joe. Immortan Joe is a terrifying and imposing figure who wears a skull-like mask that also serves as a breathing apparatus. Joe’s hold over his tribe is secured by the fact that he controls the water supply.

Pretty much everything Joe says is shouted rather than spoken and he’s the classic sort of dictator/despot who lords his power over his underlings and tries to convince them that he’s looking out for them. “DO NOT BECOME ADDICTED TO WATER,” he says to his downtrodden people, “IT WILL TAKE HOLD OF YOU AND YOU WILL RESENT ITS ABSENCE.” He uses this as an excuse to avoid giving people very much of his precious water supply and makes it sound like he’s doing them a favor by relieving them of a potential addiction rather than what he’s actually doing, which is depriving them of a basic human need.

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One of his most trusted lieutenants, a woman known as Imperator Furiosa, is sent by Joe on a mission to a nearby place called Gas Town in order to bring back, you guessed it, gasoline. But on the way, she unexpectedly veers off course. Joe sees this from his citadel, and becomes suspicious. He goes to a vault he keeps tightly secured, and does not find what he is looking for. On the walls are painted the words “OUR CHILDREN WILL NOT BE WARLORDS” and “WE ARE NOT THINGS.”

It turns out that the vault was where Joe kept his “breeders,” five white-clad beauties he keeps as, you know, breeders, which is really creepy and disgusting. Joe has been betrayed by Imperator Furiosa, who has kidnapped the breeders and taken them with her. Actually, “kidnapped” isn’t really the right word, since it implies that they didn’t want to go with her. A more accurate way of putting it would be that she escaped with them. This enrages Joe, and he sends his entire army of chalk-white, fanatically loyal Warboys after her.

One of the Warboys is a young man named Nux. Nux is sick, and needs blood transfusions to survive. Chosen as his “blood bag” is none other than Max himself. So when Nux hops in his car to join the chase after Furiosa, Max unwillingly goes along with him, chained to the front of his vehicle as his mobile blood bag.

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I won’t give away anything else about the plot. As with the previous Mad Max movies, the plot is pretty barebones, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the movie. These movies aren’t really about the plot, they’re about the experience, and this movie is an experience like no other.

And they’re also about the action. Oh, so much action. Mad Max: Fury Road is quite possibly the best car chase movie ever made. The action is nonstop and intense. Picture the climactic chase from The Road Warrior. Now triple the number of vehicles and combatants. Add the enhancements that modern special effects and a nine-figure budget can provide. Now picture that for pretty much the entirety of a two-hour movie.

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Fury Road is the ultimate adrenaline rush. In terms of sheer nonstop visceral ferocity, the only movies I can think of that even come close are The Raid and the Raid 2, and maybe John Wick. Mad Max makes the Avengers look like a bunch of amateurs.

Part of what makes the movie such a treat to watch is that the majority of it was done practically. Look, generally I don’t have that much of a problem with CGI. I’m okay with using CGI to do things in movies that are impossible in real life. I’m fine with that, but movies these days can sometimes seem like CGI overload (as anyone who suffered through the most recent Transformers movie, for example, can attest to).

But everything in this movie was done for real, which means real people, real vehicles, real stunts, and real pyrotechnics. The fact that a bunch of fearless people actually went out into the middle of the desert and filmed all of this insane vehicular mayhem gives me hope for the future of mankind, not to mention the future of cinema.

Another great thing about the film’s many action sequences is that they’re easy to follow. One of the complaints that pop up a lot about modern action movies is that they’re shot and edited in such a way that it makes the action hard to follow, since things are happening so quickly and the camera moves around a lot it can be hard for the viewer to orient him- or herself in the scene.

But George Miller, on the other hand, is careful to avoid these potential issues. For one thing, the spatial relationships in the action sequences are very clearly defined, so the viewer always has a good sense of where things are in relation to each other. This is important during fast-paced, intense scenes with a lot of things happening at once, and a lot of characters in different places.

It makes the movie feel like a very connected, unified whole, and it makes the viewer feel like you’re getting the whole picture of what’s happening and that you’re not missing anything. The editing isn’t too fast and the camera doesn’t shake around constantly, so the action always flows smoothly.

And on top of all that, the film is visually stunning. The bleak desert vistas have a sort of stark beauty to them, enhanced by the fact that they’re real (the movie was filmed in Namibia). And I just love the movie’s production design. One of the things I love most about these movies is how good they are at suggesting things. Every element of this film tells its own story. Every piece of clothing that every character wears, every weapon they use, and every piece of every vehicle has its own story behind it.

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I also love how you can tell that some items the characters use are things that had their uses in the old world, but those uses have since become irrelevant and so people have found new uses for them. You know that metal thing people use to measure your foot whenever you go to get new shoes? I feel dumb that I don’t know what that’s called. Is it just called a scale? Man, now I feel stupid. Anyway, I noticed that one of those is used as a pedal in Furiosa’s cobbled-together semi truck. Since the concept of “going to the store to get new shoes” no longer exists in the Mad Max world, things have been repurposed.

Tom Hardy gives a solid performance as Max, and is a worthy successor to Mel Gibson. He growls all of his lines and there were a couple of times where I noticed a bit of his Bane voice slip through, but he’s a great actor and an appealing lead.

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But really, the movie belongs to Charlize Theron. She completely steals the movie as Imperator Furiosa, and is one of the best action heroines since Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. She’s just badass, and she gives the movie a lot of emotional weight. It’s really her story as much as, if not more than, Max’s. All of the film’s protagonists, except for Max (and Nux the Warboy, who eventually joins them), are women, which is pretty awesome.

If you are a fan of action movies, you need to see this movie ASAP. It’s a beautiful, brutal movie. It’s not for the faint-hearted, since it is VERY intense and there is some pretty disturbing imagery, but it’s not particularly bloody and never feels gratuitous or overwhelming. It is an absolute adrenaline rush and one of the most pulse-pounding exercises in expertly-crafted cinematic mayhem that you will ever see. It is unlike any other movie and is thrilling from start to finish.

Go see it. Now.

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