Saving The World While Wearing High Fashion and High Heels

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Title: Atomic Blonde

Rating: 4 Stars

If I was in the business of giving halvsies, I’d give it a 3.5. But I’m not and I really don’t like giving out 3 stars, so 4 it is.

Set in 1989, right as the wall is coming down, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy sent to Berlin to recover a list of spies. She teams up with the Berlin station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), to try to recover it. She quickly discovers that Percival is not to be trusted and that the KGB is hot on her trail. Extreme violence ensues.

It would be charitable to describe the plot as convoluted or contrived. A more accurate description would probably be nonsensical. Especially in the mid part, the plot is about as important as the plot is to a porn movie. Even for spy / action movies, the plot here verges on the ridiculous.

However, Charlize Theron legitimately is a kick ass action hero. I loved her in Mad Max and here again she is a presence. She is tough, strong, and fearless. After an endless string of dudes, it really is great to see Theron positioned as a top line action star, which right now she unquestionably is.

James McAvoy has a special gift for portraying authority figures that have gone to seed. His performance of a spy who has been in Berlin for too long and has been corrupted by it reminds me a bit of his role as the police officer in Filth.

The style of the film is reminiscent of the John Wick films and to Kingsman. The violence is graphic, gory, and voluminous. In fact, the violence reminds me of nothing more than a graphic novel. Considering the fact that both Atomic Blonde and Kingsman were based on graphic novels and that John Wick was later turned into a graphic novel, I guess that’s to be expected.

I’m guessing that all three of the films themselves owe a debt to the Matt Damon reboot of the Bourne series, which in hindsight was a landmark in action film development. They all share the same graphic, extremely short take fight sequences.

Atomic Blonde and Kingsman take it a step further. In both cases, they’re an absurdist ironic reboot of the essential spy film genre. The violence is more graphic, the sex is more explicit, and the plots more ridiculous. The actors all but wink to the camera as the film progresses.

In fact, including the phrase Atomic in the title is a throwback to the 50’s and the 60’s, when atomic warfare was on everyone’s mind. During that time, the phrase atomic appeared in multiple cultural contexts (watch the documentary Atomic Cafe for a more thorough discussion of this).

Another reference to the 1960’s in Atomic Blonde was to its pervasive use of fashion and music. This seemed pretty clear to be a subtle wink to the Mod movement in England. Whereas Mike Myers openly and absurdly exaggerated this movement in his Austen Powers movies, here the irony is less broad but still quite apparent.

What’s interesting to me is…what’s next? Once you’ve completely deconstructed a cultural archetype through irony, what do you do next? What is post irony? Will the movies just keep getting more and more cartoony (perhaps ending up like the movie Idiocracy where there’s an entire series devoted to nothing more than a man getting hit it in his balls)? Or will it cycle back and movies become sincere again? Or will the genre just die off with nothing interesting left to say?

If you’re really interested in the role of irony in art and the impact that the pervasive nature of television (and if he was still alive, I’m sure he’d say internet now instead) has had in drowning us in a sea of irony and what impact that will have on art in the future, please read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”.

One final note. Yesterday, I finished reading Legacy of Ashes, a searing review of the incompetence of the CIA. Reading this before served quite the contrast to Atomic Blonde, which portrays intelligence agents, even if they are corrupt, as ruthlessly efficient. Don’t be fooled, our intelligence agencies don’t even have a fraction of the knowledge, ability, and competence that is shown in this film.

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