Thursday, May 17, 2018

Theory Thursday: "Atomic Blonde" is a Masterpiece

Scene from Atomic Blonde
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Deadpool 2 is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Atomic Blonde is a masterpiece.

With the summer movie season upon us, there's plenty of comic book movies to look forward to. For a certain type of fan, Deadpool 2 looks to be one of those movies that satirizes the trend, creating a world of subversive commentary and juvenile humor in ways that are refreshing. That is, of course, if it maintains the appeal of the original Golden Globe-nominated Deadpool from a few years back. The marketing has been easily the best element of the film (for instance, the Wal Mart bargain bin DVDs being reimagined with Deadpool's iconography), but will the film hold any weight? I'm not here to debate the merits of the Merc with the Mouth, but I am here to say that I'm psyched because of the presence of director David Leitch, who already has a genuine comic book masterpiece under his belt.

Leitch started off as a fight choreographer before moving onto directing, including two John Wick movies (with the third being announced as only a year away). I honestly would consider him a man that knows action and makes the kinetic energy flow. With that said, I think that his late-summer film Atomic Blonde got overlooked last year. It could be because of its August release date, or that the success of Wonder Woman already relegated another female "superhero" to a state of inferiority. I'm not entirely sure why the film didn't do better, in part because the good will that Charlize Theron received from Mad Max: Fury Road should've been enough to make the film more than the moderate hit that it ended up being. When the end of the year came, there was an overwhelming praise of Wonder Woman (which is fine, since I recognize its cultural significance) but not the superior, edgier, more lively Atomic Blonde: a genuine masterpiece of action cinema and quite possibly one of the best comic book movies of all time.

I think Atomic Blonde can get by without being associated with the comic book crowd, but I think it's evidence that it fits within the genre in spite of that. It wasn't as heightened as something like Logan or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, instead choosing to find the cartoon in reality with another career-best performance by Theron as a spy in Berlin during the Cold War. She is introduced bruised, shaking, and doing her best to not crumble under the pressure. She is already a character with battle scars by the time she gets into the interrogation motif that plays throughout the film. She's hardened by her experience, and it will shine through as she quips through a series of experiences that are violent, sexual, and personal. They're all so powerful that in the course of one conversation with intelligence, she is a far more complex character than any major superhero at the moment. The Avengers: Infinity War cannot compete with the deeper empathy that the audience carries for Theron in this film.

The earliest and most striking detail is how Leitch literally spray paints Berlin. Most of the information sprawls across the screen as a kitschy soundtrack of punk and pop plays over the images of a cold city. It's beautifully serene with chaos pouring like sewage throughout the windows. There's a chic look to the whole thing before Theron and her platinum blonde wig hit the streets. With bar scenes set inside cinematography of blue and pink, there's a world that shows the Cold War as someplace that may be seedy, but it's also cool. It has a power to the design that makes one excited to see what else this film has in store. At this point, the film has a very definitive style, and it's so antagonistic to the blockbuster norm of the moment that it becomes beautiful.

Then of course there is Theron herself. It's at the center a spy drama with a personal struggle to get important information across the border. The issue is that this is done in a bit of a dangerous way, with operative forces steamrolling through the city while trying to take down Theron. In what is going to be the film's most iconic scene, Theron leads Leitch's long take through a stairwell fight scene in which she knocks men down stairs, performing hand-to-hand combat in ways that are jarring, but also have a physical dedication that is astounding. Theron didn't need to do her own stunts, but she did them. The fact that Leitch makes it look so real also is a testament to what action cinema is missing. The style is incredible by itself, but adding a sense of dedication to craft that goes beyond special effects and the film holds a power. Even the way that Theron gives heavy pants in between fights feels earned. She is one of the greatest comic book characters come to life, and nobody really noticed.

I don't love this movie because it's a comic book movie that takes chances, even to the point of setting a fight scene with a backdrop of Tarkovsky's Stalker. No, the details are nice but the film's entire package is so beautifully done that you have to stop and admire it. There's a deeper emotional resonance in Theron's story, even if the film does have its shares of head-scratching plot twists. This isn't a film that entirely needs to make sense. It just needs to get you to the next big fight scene, and it does so with a class that most films overlook. Even the John Wick films don't have the energy of Atomic Blonde, if just because gun combat is far less interesting than seeing a stylish woman drop-kicking men at every turn. Wonder Woman may have had more of a cultural impact, but Atomic Blonde is more impressive because of how it doesn't feel like a comic book movie, but still manages to achieve everything that makes those type of films successful.

It's why I'm more optimistic about Deadpool 2 than I was about the first one. Leitch is someone who seems like he knows what he's doing when it comes to making action beats. I can't really comment on how he'll do with the post-ironic meta humor, but he already has an assurance that I hope he brings to the film. Even if it fails, I am psyched to know that Atomic Blonde 2 is int he works. So while I worry that most people have no idea what this movie is, I hope that it does well enough that it makes people understand what is great about it. Theron really earns her status as an incredible actress because of this movie, not to mention her shift for this year's Tully. Still, there's a power to every aspect of this film that I can only imagine the film getting the acclaim it deserves years later. People will wonder "Why was nobody talking about it in 2017?" Well, I hope you see it and do so for yourself. It's one of the best overlooked movies of last year, and quite possibly one of the best action movies of the decade. 

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