It’s been a while since I felt as thoroughly alienated by a film as I did while watching Atomic Blonde. For transparency’s sake, I admit that David Leitch’s first solo feature rubbed me the wrong way from the moment I first saw the trailer, even though a pop music-inflected, Cold War-set spy thriller sounds like it should be right up my alley. I try to avoid seeing movies that I feel predisposed to dislike in theaters, but it was a lazy Friday afternoon that had me in the mood for some dumb escapism, so I decided to give it a shot.
Unfortunately, the actual movie confirmed the misgivings I’d had from the trailer instead of alleviating them. There are a lot of issues to unpack here – not least of which is its attempt to pass off the objectification of women as empowerment – but the most crucial flaw might be the humdrum action scenes (a.k.a. the whole reason Atomic Blonde exists).
While I wouldn’t presume to know more about hand-to-hand combat than a director with more than 80 stunt credits to his name, it turns out there’s a difference between knowing how to stage a fight and being able to effectively incorporate that fight into a story. Even the most impressive set piece – a bruising marathon set in a stairwell that had people in my theater audibly cringing – ultimately falls flat, because it means nothing, contributing neither to the plot nor to our understanding of Charlize Theron’s paper-thin heroine. Swap it with any of the other action scenes, and the switch would have little discernable effect on the narrative. Sure, Leitch’s decision to film in a single unbroken take highlights the toll on the actors’ bodies, a rare sight in this age of indestructible superheroes. But gauging the quality of an action scene on its brutality alone is like judging horror solely by how likely it is to give you nightmares – it turns art into a dare, an endurance test.
In other words, no matter how flashy or physically demanding an action sequence is, the punches won’t leave a mark unless there’s some weight behind them. Continue reading