The John Wick franchise has received a lot of critical praise. Most viewers see it as a return to the great, choreographed action films of the past. I’ve heard people talk about how it ranks with Die Hard.
I was not among the biggest fans of Wick. I enjoyed the technical skill but I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. Over the top action films can go in two different directions. They can be self-aware and use their elaborate scenes of violence for comedy. (See the underrated Shoot em Up) or the action underscores the internal conflict in the main characters. They are not shooting people to look cool, but to distract themselves from an internal struggle that’s much worse. (See John Woo’s classic The Killer.)
Wick tried to have it both ways. The revenge plot was dumb and was meant to be a flimsy excuse for the action sequences. This could have still worked if Wick embraced the absurd aspects of its premise. But Wick takes itself far too seriously. The best scenes weren’t even the action scenes, but the scenes of Wick talking to the concierge of the secret assassin’s hotel, making requests for room service. The action scenes were far too quick and never built up.
Atomic Blonde, by Wick co-director David Leitch, improves on its predecessor. First, the action scenes are much better. They’re allowed to build and allowed to continue as long as they need to. And I actually cared about the characters involved in the shooting.
The entire film is told as a debriefing by MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron). She’s a very dissatisfied agent who wonders what’s going to happen to her. The film’s main actions take place roughly a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Lorraine is already trying to imagine a life after the Cold War. She drinks straight vodka and is constantly turning up with new bruises. She’s working with Percival (James McAvoy), a station agent in East Berlin who dresses like an English punk rocker. Neither of them are what they seem.
Theron is a great as a grizzled secret agent. She’s not a superhero that is always in command of a fight. She’s very vulnerable and constantly in pain. She’s required to present a tough exterior, which is why she blows off people in her life. But much like Craig’s Bond, she’s chugging liquor in order to live with the things she’s done. Theron’s performance is about an internal struggle with everything she has to do.
The film also has a lot of something I thought John Wick was lacking – style. The film is made to look like an eighties synthpop music video occasionally interrupted by spray paint interstitials. It helps set the mood of the film as a fantasy rather than an a realistic portrayal of spy work – which helps explain the plot twists. John Wick threw neon everywhere to suggest something stylistic, while Atomic Blonde actually created a new action movie world.
Now, I cannot explain the plot. It has something to do with smuggling an East German refugee with knowledge of a list of deep cover agents across the Berlin Wall. But there are double and triple crosses between practically all of the characters. We’re never told exactly why the agent needs to be smuggled out against East Berlin when a physical copy of the list exists. We’re also introduced to numerous characters (including a man who hangs out on the roof of an East German movie theater) that the film promptly forgets. And the person telling this story may not be entirely reliable. This storytelling technique has been used to great effect in other films, but here it tested my patience.
But the action scenes work despite the confusion I felt at times. Atomic Blonde makes you feel for the characters and hope they succeed. The entire film can be summarized with the staircase fight scene. Lorraine tries to fight multiple assassins to protect Spyglass, the East German refugee. She’s outnumbered and there’s a chance she’ll be killed, but she presses on. The film pulls no punches, making the audience feel every blow and stab the assassins give to Lorraine. That’s how I felt watching the film. Not like I was being stabbed, but as though I couldn’t understand what was happening yet understood the stakes.
I enjoyed Atomic Blonde. Yes, I understand that it’s ridiculous. But to me that was part of the charm. I at least cared enough about the characters to care about the action scenes. Atomic Blonde is among the best pure action films to come out in some time.