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Strong Female Character? Well, she has bullets at least (an Atomic Blonde Review)

So this feels a little weird to review what with all the craziness that’s been going on in politics the last 24 hours… but I had already been planning to see this movie, so here we go. Let’s talk about Atomic Blonde.

When I review any movie based on a comic book, one of the things I try to do is say, “how would I feel about this if I didn’t know the source material?” Well, this is a rare chance for me because I actually haven’t read The Coldest City, the graphic novel that Atomic Blonde is based on. So this is a rare chance for me to go in cold for once. I was actually looking forward to it. I was finally going to get to experience a comic book movie like the common people.

Wow, your lives must suck. That just wasn’t fun at all.

I think what it comes down to is “what are you looking for in a movie?” Do you like bullets? There are totally some bullets in this… so many bullets. If you want see some people getting shot… you’re going to be happy. Do you like the punching? We got the punching in this too… so much punching…

Hey, what about hot naked chicks? Well Charlize Theron is in this, and she’s hot and she is naked from time to time. Maybe less naked than you want her to be… but appear sans clothes a few times in this movie. Unfortunately, if that’s all you’re looking for, you might be upset by the amount of bruises and cuts she has… you know what with all the shooting and punching and shit. But just to make up for it, we’re going to toss you a gratuitous lesbian love scene between Charlize and also very hot Sofia Boutella. You like the lesbian sex don’t you? That’s what you’re looking for right?

Well, if so you’re going to enjoy this. If not, this movie probably isn’t for you.

One common complaint with big budget action films is that there aren’t enough strong female characters in them. I agree with this assessment. That was really part of the appeal for Wonder Woman. This is not that. She is strong…. in that she does very tough things… she is female in that… I dunno… lets say because she has boobs… which I know because they show her naked… and well… that’s pretty much it. What she’s lacking is character because… well, she really isn’t one.

Being a strong female character isn’t… or well *shouldn’t be* about just being able to kick ass. I mean, I’m all for people kicking ass in my movies. But I’m actually looking for more than that. I’m looking for complexity. I’m looking for character strengths and, for that matter, character weaknesses. I’m also looking for motivations. I’m looking for the character to have something to do. Other than just looking good.

This was a movie all about looking good. Just not necessarily about being sexy. It was about spectacle. She had to look sexy in the bedroom and she had to look tough when she was beating people up. And…. nothing else… nothing else mattered in this movie. Nothing at all.

And that’s actually fine, if that’s what you’re looking for. There’s nothing wrong with spectacle. This was directed by David Leitch, previously famous for… well, he’s not really famous. He’s a career stuntman (which I wish stuntmen were more famous) who cut his directing teeth by being given a few scenes to direct in John Wick. This is his first feature flying solo. The thing with cutting your teeth on a movie like John Wick is that it is a movie all about spectacle. It has no character and it barely has a plot: “They killed his dog, now he will kill them.” That’s it. I actually like Keanu Reeves as an actor, but that’s not an acting movie. This movie probably could have been that as well.

Just no one bothered to tell Charlize Theron.

Because she definitely tries to act in this film. In fact, she does a whole lot of acting… SO MUCH ACTING. She plays the character of Lorraine, and she shows emotion and pathos and makes choices that really show you that she’s trying to get her character across. Sometimes she’ll be distraught. Sometimes she’ll be confused. Sometimes defeated. Sometimes a stone cold killer. There are points in this film where you can just see on her face that she’s expressing anguish. Complete and total anguish. It’s quite clear how she won an Oscar for acting. It’s just that the writing isn’t there and so the choices she makes don’t seem to mean much. Remember how I said she’s not a character? That’s because she’s not. You don’t know anything about the character or where she came from. You don’t know why she wants anything. There is absolutely no reason to care about anything she does.

Not only are the subtle emotional choices wildly inconsistent, so is the action. At points, Lorraine has the abilities of John McClain in the first Die Hard. She’s a completely realistic driven, but human action star. Later, she will be John McClain in the fifth Die Hard, an unstoppable tank who can be injured but just keeps coming. And then later still she’ll be John Wick, a perfect killing machine who no one can even lay a finger on. Even though the story only takes place over the course of a week, I could almost accept this if she was simply getting tougher and tougher as the movie went on, leveling up like video game character. But this is not the case. She floats between all three levels of skill depending on the kind of action set piece that Leitch wants to present at that moment. Sometimes she can dodge bullets and moments later is being sucker punched by an entry level thug from Henchmen R Us.

It’s not that there’s no plot… actually there’s a lot of plot. WAY TOO MUCH PLOT. At it’s core, this is a simple McGuffin movie. There’s this thing. Everyone wants it and is willing to kill to get it. But then there’s a plot twist… and another plot twist…I think it’s supposed to be intrigue and suspenseful. But it isn’t really. It’s just a muddy mess of twists for twists sake. In fact there are about as many plot twists as there are action sequences. And the movie basically just goes back forth between twist and action for two straight hours. Every once in a while there’s a pause to remind us how sexy Charlize is.

Other characters have much the same problem. Their motivations are non-existant. Without spoilers, Sofia Boutella’s character makes no sense at all. She is contradictory to herself. James McAvoy‘s character makes more sense, but has no reason to be what he is. Toby Jones and John Goodman‘s characters are simply spy movie stereotypes. Understanding them relies on me having seen other spy movies before and going “oh, ok I get it. They’re those guys.” and then pretending the movie explained it to me. It didn’t.

Because like John Wick, really nothing in this movie matters. It’s just spectacle… it’s just stuff that looks cool. And it does look cool. The cinematography and lighting in particular are very well done. The soundtrack is annoying in way where it wants to be Baby Driver.… but oh it so just isn’t. But costuming is great. Charlize has amazing outfits that really set the 1980s tone the movie is going for. The action scenes and fight choreography are simply amazing.

But unlike John Wick, which knows exactly what it is and embraces it, Atomic Blonde thinks that it is a movie that has something going on. It thinks that by making itself complicated it has become complex. It isn’t. It’s actually just a whole lot of nothing.And the fact that it pretends to be something… that it in fact COULD have been something if more attention were paid to building its story and characters, is both distracting and disheartening. By the time the final twist comes (and there are at least half a dozen in the final ten minutes of the movie) I simply didn’t care anymore. Half of them I’d predicted. Not because of anything clever and intricately hinted at. But because you can literally say “what’s the most ridiculous way we could work a spy trope in here that would make the least amount of sense? Well, that must be what they’re doing next!”

So yes, summer blockbuster popcorn action movies do need more strong female characters. But the way to do this is to actually work on the character aspect rather than just taking the “strong” part so literally. This is not just a problem with female characters. Action movies don’t understand that the ability to kickass is not an interesting character trait. Frankly Lorraine is actually slightly more interesting in this film when she’s getting beat up. And still only negligibly.

And that’s really the problem. I probably could have accepted this film if it was nothing but a fun action romp. The problem is that it thinks it is so much more, and it really could have been… if they had just remembered to actually “write” it. Bullets do not substitute for character building.

★★☆☆☆ (2 out of 5 stars) or
⁍⁍⁍⦿⦿ (3 out of 5 bullets and maybe a couple boobs if that’s all you’re looking for…)

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