Charlize In Charge (feat. Oktay Ege Kozak)
Given Mad Max: Fury Road, the Fast franchise, and now Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron seems dead set on spending her forties as an action star. But the South African actor has been working across genres for two decades, stealing scenes, elevating co-stars, and portraying complicated, sharp-edged characters with tumultuous internal lives. On today’s show, we discuss three of Theron’s boldest anti-heroine roles: Atomic Blonde (2017), Young Adult (2011), and Monster (2003). With help from film critic and Theron devotee Oktay Ege Kozak, we dig into the career of one of the most interesting movie stars of our time.
Read Kozak’s list of Theron’s best performances for Paste here: bit.ly/therontop10.
–“Atomic Blonde” review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
In what has to be the eighth or ninth ‘80s hit of the movie (with more coming), Atomic Blonde bumps Re-Flex’s “The Politics of Dancing” out over the house speakers of a German discotheque. The bizarre song by a New Wave one-hitter definitely preaches something in the verse about corporate interests and big government strangling the radio waves and brainwashing the populace. But the chorus, as much as it suggests anything at all, claims some value in simply moving the human body.
“The politics of dancing / the politics of ooo feeling good.”
It’s an emblematic song for Atomic Blonde, a movie teeming with late-Cold War references and cartoon intrigue. Spies in the form of an infestation — from MI6, KGB, Stasi, CIA, French intelligence — are circling each other in a 1989 Berlin that’s both evolving and crumbling by the day. But all their maneuvering is either ancillary or unintelligible compared to the titular bombshell annihilating people by moving her body, and ooo feeling pretty good doing so. Move a knee into an East German crotch, a car key into a Russian cheek and countless elbows into countless throats.
Sure, it’s a movie that claims some knowledge about the underground politics of Cold War reunification and that’s also bound to inspire some political discussion in our own world about women in such movies kicking ass and taking lovers. But all the movie’s best moments are knockdown, drag-out brawls at their best when you think they can’t possible go on anymore. They do, and their sheer cinematic guts have little to do with the movie gorging itself on retro flavor or the cocky spy’s version of history.
But they have a lot to do with Charlize Theron — this century’s movie star who most resembles a razor blade and whose unique career is peaking in her forties as she becomes an increasingly steely and physical screen presence. And that’s not to say she’s only great at incapacitating foes; her best non-combat acting is phenomenally physical as well. Try a minor, but telling swat at a newspaper with which a superior prods her, or one of the most fervent sex scenes in recent memory.
As MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, Theron brings an interior gravity to the part of the unflappable, but jaded spy. Her dialogue can be light, but she delivers her banter like she’s lashing out through the weariness and damage of a life no one can sustain. She’s helped along by the movie’s framing device, which early on shows us the bruises to prove she’s about to go through hell in the ensuing story. That device is Lorraine being debriefed by an MI6 higher-up and and a mysterious CIA interloper (Toby Jones and John Goodman respectively), as she pieces through the tale of traveling to Berlin to collect the body of another MI6 operative. He’s a former flame we see through old photographs and flashbacks. Of course, there’s more for her to do on the trip than retrieve and grieve. Shortly after landing and foiling the first of many attempts to kill her, Lorraine meets her agency contact, a Berlin mover, shaker, and scenester David Percival, played as a cheeky party animal by James McAvoy.
The movie trots out, but lives up to its “trust no one” cliche with an espionage plot that manages to both be confusing and shallow. There are codenamed agents whose true identities we’re waiting to be revealed and a dossier of names from both sides of the Iron Curtain hidden in a wristwatch everyone is scrambling to find.
Though fun down to its bones, Atomic Blonde is simply trying too hard to be a post-modern piece of badassery. In his directorial debut, lifelong stunt coordinator David Leitch hasn’t worked out the right balance between extravagant and cheap, between genuine spectacle and winking pulp. His film occasionally gleams with interesting visual textures: an ice bath in which Lorraine looks like she’s soaking in a vat of eggs or the light catching a marble bar top just right. At one point, our anti-heroine’s hotel looks as though she’s lodging inside the Stranger Things title card.
And as for the “Jane Wick” moniker it’s been tagged with in the press, Atomic Blonde is certainly a more ambitious, better acted, more vibrant piece of entertainment, but it can’t match the Wick pair for their flawlessly accurate sense of self: straight-faced, ridiculous executions sliding along the edge of an elegant shadow. Even if the fighting choreography and the imagination of its violent set pieces is comparable, Atomic Blonde is more of a bona fide mess.
The fourth wall is broken late in the game; Kurt Loder reports on the Berlin Wall collapse; Leitch can’t decide if he’s more inspired by Winding-Refn or Joe Carnahan. At one point, Lorraine actually refers to “the sins we committed during the Cold War” like only someone in 2017, not 1989, would do. And then there are those pop music cues so on the nose it feels like Lorraine is breaking yours —“London Calling,” “Under Pressure,” two different versions of “99 Luftballons.” It’s enough to make you say, “halt bitte.”
Even though it ought to stop explaining as much, the movie is right about its precious Berlin and how interesting it is to watch Lorraine fight her way through this cosmopolitan war zone where penthouses and warehouses are in equal supply. But show, don’t confess, Atomic Blonde. You don’t have to keep comparing it to the Wild West, even if the black hats and, well I guess the good guys are gray hats at best, do wander around from bar to back alley to night club to public square the way factions in cattle towns would always take an indirect line to a high-noon showdown. The main Stasi officer has been across the street all movie; you can just go kill him right now. But then what we do with all the songs we’ve licensed?
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Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.