“Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe.” — David Percival (James McAvoy).
Every now and then an action movie comes along which, as is popular to say, revitalizes the genre. One such film was 2014’s stylish ballet of death, John Wick, which I’ll admit to having been entertained by, if scores of brutal killings qualify as entertainment. Since my children’s generation measures a film’s worth by body count, movies like John Wick and this week’s Atomic Blonde represent the pinnacle of the younger generation’s amusement. It might not even be remiss to describe Atomic Blonde as “John Wick in Heels,” except (and sorry to anyone who might have been anticipating it) Atomic Blonde doesn’t star Keanu Reeves in drag.
Instead, it stars Charlize Theron, certainly no stranger to action, but who has never carried an action movie solo, not even Mad Max: Fury Road, by herself. Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a female James Bond of Britain’s MI6, tasked at the end of the Cold War with infiltrating East Berlin in search of one of those movie MacGuffins that serve to propel a plot, yet are always secondary to it. In this case, said MacGuffin is a confidential list of Western agents and their contacts throughout the disintegrating Soviet Empire, but more important is Lorraine’s quest for revenge against an unknown KGB agent, possibly even an Allied double agent, who killed someone close to her.
The list is an excuse to get Theron surrounded about once a reel by half a dozen, sometimes more, surly Soviet operatives who mean her no good, and whom she dispatches in exquisitely choreographed mayhem. Rarely do her victims succumb to less than four bullets or less than five stab wounds, or combinations thereof. Theron is joined by a fine cast, almost all of whom are unable to keep up with the trail of corpses left in her wake, including James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, and Toby Jones. Star power the film does not lack.
The complicated stunt sequences, the large cast of characters, and the vengeance motif aren’t the only elements Atomic Blonde shares with John Wick. Both films share director David Leitch, unofficially credited on Wick as co-director with Chad Stahelski. Lietch is a longtime stunt coordinator who’s contributed to action movies from 1998’s Blade to 2015’s Hitman: Agent 47, and assistant-directed or second unit-directed films from 2003’s In Hell to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. Suffice to say the gentleman knows his way around a fight scene or a car chase, and he outdoes himself in Atomic Blonde, although his cleverest touch may be a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous “umbrella scene” in Foreign Correspondent. Not only do Theron’s fights seem more realistic than in John Wick, but both Lorraine and her adversaries/victims seem to feel the pain a lot more.
Nevertheless, while Atomic Blonde is as meticulously crafted as John Wick and possibly even better written, it’s not quite the crowdpleaser, precisely because it IS less cartoony, a little more serious. John Wick is so over the top that it’s possible to regard it as a slightly more bloodthirsty Looney Tunes animated short. Plus, unlike John Wick’s tongue-in-cheek quest for vengeance over the murder of his puppy and theft of his car, there are actual historical considerations in Atomic Blonde, set in the perennially bleak, overcast, and monochromatic East Berlin. Maybe just as many people die in just as outrageous ways, but somehow its slightly more serious tone means it’s not as not as much giddy, vicarious fun (again, if carnage can be described as “fun,” and evidently a large segment of the worldwide cinematic audience indeed regards it as such). Death as escape. Ponder that, friends.