Directed By: David Leitch
Written By: Kurt Johnstad
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan
Review by Mike DeAngelo:
There’s something to be said about a good straight-up, no-nonsense action flick. David Leitch started his career as a stuntman in these types of movies and worked his way up to second-unit and stunt coordination, eventually establishing his own stunt house, 87eleven, with Chad Stahelski. Finally, David and his renowned 87-Eleven stunt house co-founder, Chad Stahelski, struck out on their own to co-direct a small action film with Keanu Reeves called John Wick. Of course that movie went on to become both a fairly big hit and a calling card for the co-directors, displaying not only their prowess as game-changing stunt coordinators, but their talent for establishing a world with a very specific tone and style.
With that success, Chad Stahelski went on to direct John Wick 2, and David decided to strike out on his own with a spy thriller that would become Atomic Blonde. While we all know how John Wick 2 turned out ($$$), many were curious to see if Leitch could handle solo directorial duties as well as his former co-director & partner. While he certainly keeps the stylistic flourishes and 87eleven stunt-tastic action of John Wick, the world of Atomic Blonde is far more convoluted than that of John Wick. That combined with uneven pacing and a longer runtime than needed make for a fairly unremarkable spy thriller that is only just barely saved by Charlize Theron’s performance and a few truly outstanding fight scenes.
It’s been well established that Charlize Theron can both act and commit fully to stunt work – Atomic Blonde only solidifies her reputation as a true badass on both accounts. In lesser hands (actor and director-wise), Charlize’s character would have been extremely hollow and cliché. Yet, Charlize is able to create a real nuanced lead character that, when paired with some heavy 87eleven stunt training, is a real force to be reckoned with. James McAvoy also performs his mysterious friend/enemy (?) role admirably, but is reduced to a footnote due to Charlize’s sheer dominance of every scene.
Where the movie loses its footing is with its overcomplicated plot that forces the far-superior action scenes to all but stop mid-movie. While I’m not sure if this statement is completely accurate, it felt like the middle hour of the film was almost entirely action-less. This is where many John Wick/87eleven action fans will take issue, as, let’s be honest, the signature brand of kinetic and relentless action is basically what puts fan’s butts in the seats.
Even with that gap in action, the action scenes that are in the movie are absolutely top-notch. The “stairway scene” is likely what will become what the movie is known and referenced for, as it’s technically marvelous and absolutely brutal. My only complaint is that the trailers leading up to the film’s release largely spoil every big action sequence to some extent. While that doesn’t necessarily make the scenes worse, it does lessen their impact a bit.
Combine all of this with 80s new wave hits needle-dropping left and right, and you’ve got a bit of a loud and colorful mixed bag for an action flick. It’s worth viewing at least once for the jaw dropping action; however, it is important for action buffs to adjust their expectations accordingly, as Atomic Blonde isn’t the straight forward action powerhouse that John Wick was made to be. Atomic Blonde, to a fault, is its own beast. It’s overly complicated and overlong while also having moments of true intrigue and pulse pounding action. Proceed not with caution, but an understanding that you’re not in for a female-led John Wick film. With a few tweaks and a decent box office haul, Atomic Blonde could become a unique and interesting franchise – it’s just not quite there yet.