Review: Atomic Blonde: Kickass meets Tinker, Tailor… and not in a good way.

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Mrs Weale and I are currently ‘home alone’.  Number 1 son has just moved into his own flat; Number 2 is in India with his girlfriend for the rest of the month; and our daughter is in Spain, staying with a friend.  This has given us the opportunity to do something we don’t get to do enough: go to the movies!

Last week we saw ‘Dunkirk’.  Any review by me would be pretty much superfluous: it’s a really good film – as pretty much all the real film critics have told us – and my only niggle is that I think Christopher Nolan’s decision to eschew CGI was a mistake: a few more destroyers and a few thousand more men on the beaches would have added a lot to the epic scale of the movie.  Other than that though: brilliant.

This week it was the turn of ‘Atomic Blonde‘, the graphic novel-based Charlize Theron vehicle, directed by David Leitch.  Uh oh, not so good.

Having seen the trailers, I’d kinda, sorta formed the impression that Atomic Blonde was one of those darkly comic actioners in the mould of Kickass, Deadpool or even John Wick (which Leitch co-directed): violent and grisly but obviously rooted in a fantasy parallel universe where the characters can kick and punch the living shit out of each other and still turn up for a rendezvous in a nightclub in a skin-tight dress and thigh boots without anyone being too bothered.

But so far as I could tell, we are intended to take Atomic Blonde reasonably seriously.  The action takes place in Berlin in 1989, just as the Warsaw Pact is beginning to fall apart.  A British MI6 agent has got hold of ‘the list’ – a document which contains the identities of a whole bunch of undercover field agents and which, conveniently for the product placement department, is hidden in an expensive watch.  He gets his brains blown out by a big, bearded hipster with a foreign accent who takes the watch.  Cue Charlize.  She is sent by MI6 to Berlin to retrieve it.  The complication is that there is a double-agent – ‘Satchel’ – within MI6 (isn’t there always?) who may be compromised by the list and obviously won’t want Charlize to take it back to London:  ‘Trust nobody’, Charlize is duly told by ‘C’ (James Faulkner – last seen being barbecued by a dragon in ‘Game of Thrones’).

Mayhem ensues.  Charlize is met at the airport by a couple of blokes who are actually Soviet spies, she realises this in the car and beats the crap out of them, killing one and crashing the car.  She is then scooped up by ‘Percival’ (James McAvoy) the MI6 head of station in Berlin,  and off we go.

Over the next – nearly – two hours we bump into Eddie Marsan, playing ‘Spyglass’ – an MI6 mole in the Stasi – who originally stole the list but has also memorised it; Sofia Boutella as ‘Delphine Lasalle’, a French agent with whom Charlize has a lesbian hook-up (which will please the T&A aficionados); and an assortment of large, bearded Scandinavians playing the KGB/Stasi contingent with whom Charlize tangles violently from time to time.

Here’s the thing:  if the plotting was subtle, or the script had any wit to it, this could have been one of those guilty pleasure romps in the Guy Ritchie/Matt Vaughn style; equally, with a bit more backstory and characterisation, we could have had a semi-credible (in a good way) Jason Bourne-style high-voltage action fest.  In reality, we get neither.  The plot is mundane and cliché-ridden (the twists are chucked in with all the subtlety of a bowling ball being lobbed onto a ping-pong table), the script is leaden and the directing, with the exception of the fight sequences, is by the numbers.  I started looking at my watch about an hour in and Mrs W was doing the same.

On the positive side, the cinematography was great: I spent some time in Berlin in the 80s before the wall came down and it did capture the bleak glamour of that era, despite having Budapest as the principal location; and the soundtrack added a little of the wit that was missing from the script (though I could have done without two different versions of Nena’s ’99 Luftballoons’).

To give them some credit, the actors made the most of the poor hand that the script had dealt them.  McAvoy as the MI6 officer in Berlin came across as a petulant twat, but he was probably meant to; Boutella was pretty convincing as the ingenue French secret agent out of her depth; and Charlize Theron can certainly do a turn as a hard-case, as she demonstrated in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.  On the other hand, Toby Jones and John Goodman both phoned in their performances, with Jones reprising his turn as Percy Alleline (minus the Scots accent) from ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.

I’ve seen some online reviews suggesting that Atomic Blonde has some sort of man-hating feminist agenda: if so, I didn’t notice.  In reality there are several gratuitous nude scenes – including some ‘hot girl-on-girl action’ – which don’t exactly fit with the Millie Tant worldview and I would be surprised if that was the intention.  Actually, it is moderately refreshing to see women carrying an action film like this; it’s just a little disappointing it isn’t a better movie.

So, to sum up: it isn’t dire, but neither is it worth the £28 I shelled out for two tickets and I’m pretty sure we’d have done better with pizza and iTunes.

 

Rating:  ★★☆☆☆

Movie Review: ‘Fury’ – Saving Private Ryan in a tank…

 

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You can buy it here

I’ve now watched ‘Fury’ three times.  The first time time was at the Kensington Odeon, on a romantic date-night with Mary (I know, I know – at least I took her to Byron Burger afterwards).  But it was released on DVD and to iTunes a couple of weeks ago and I downloaded it, mostly because I was hoping it was actually a bit better than I’d thought it was the first time I saw it, or maybe that it had somehow ‘matured’ a little in the months since I first watched it.

But it hadn’t.

The plot of ‘Fury’ is fairly straightforward.  It’s the very end of the war and the US Army are deep inside Nazi Germany, supposedly mopping up the last remnants of the Wehrmacht.  Of course, it isn’t as straightforward as that and they are still coming across pockets of fanatical resistance, mostly from the SS and groups of politically indoctrinated Hitler Youth.  Brad Pitt is a old-timer sergeant – ‘Wardaddy’ – in command of a Sherman tank and a crew of hard-bitten veterans who have been fighting together since the North Africa campaign in 1942 and have made it mostly unscathed from Normandy to the bitter end.

The film opens in the aftermath of a tank battle.  Brad’s experienced ‘bow-gunner’ (actually, he’d be the radio operator, a skilled job – operating the bow machine-gun is very much his secondary role) has been gorily killed and when they get back to their base, a fresh-faced ‘green’ young soldier is allocated to take his place.

At which unpromising point we de-camp to war movie cliché central (spoiler warning!).

  • The replacement crewman is not really a soldier but a clerk-typist who has been in the army for 8 weeks, has never been in combat and is something of an idealist. (See ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Blackhawk Down’ for more or less the exact same character)
  • Brad’s surviving crew comprise three stock war film characters: a Christian fundamentalist gunner (quite well played by Shia LaBouef as it happens); a Latino driver; and a southern redneck loader.  They’re all completely different yet they love and respect each other, presumably through shared experience. (‘Saving Private Ryan’ again, they could have substituted a Jewish soldier for the Latino to maintain the same cliché level)
  • Brad’s platoon commander is also a fresh-faced young fella.  One of Brad’s hard-bitten fellow sergeants asks him if he’s started shaving yet. (‘A Bridge Too Far’)
  • As the platoon are moving in convoy, they are attacked by Hitler Youths with anti-tank weapons.  New boy fails to open fire on them because they are ‘just kids’ and Brad blames him for the death of the platoon commander who kills himself after being horrifically set on fire. (‘Band of Brothers’, if I recall correctly, and various others)
  • Brad forces the new boy to kill a German prisoner close up. (Very similar to ‘Saving Private Ryan’)
  • In a town they capture, they are attacked by naive Hitler Youths led by an SS officer.  The SS officer is shot out of hand.
  • In the town Brad and new young guy go to a flat occupied by a young girl and her aunt. Young guy plays the piano and gets to shag the girl; Brad, once cleaned up, is gentlemanly, but all is spoiled when the rough soldiery turn up. (I don’t remember where I’ve seen this before but I have; it isn’t dissimilar to the French Plantation scene cut from ‘Apocalypse Now!’ but there are closer examples)
  • Brad and the guys end up hopelessly defending a crossroads from their crippled tank against a ‘battalion’ – actually more like a big company, of fanatical Waffen-SS troops.  The SS baddies are astonishingly tactically naive, despite superior firepower, and get their arses handed to them, but ultimately fresh-faced new boy is the only survivor amongst the goodies. (‘Saving Private Ryan’)

There is no getting away from the fact that, for anyone who has watched even a moderate number of war films in the past ten or twenty years, this is unmistakably a patchwork quilt of tired old tropes.  Yes, war is horrible and people are terribly injured more or less at random; yes, otherwise civilised people do horrible things in war.  But I think we all knew that.

I’ve written on here before about what an awful, pernickety person I am to watch war films with but I was quite excited about Fury because I knew from the advanced publicity that they had tried to make it look as realistic as possible.  For example, they had got one of the last running German Tiger tanks, from the Tank Museum at Bovington, for a key scene which at least suggested that it would all be grittily realistic but this was pretty disappointing too.  The realism was no more than skin deep and there is more to a convincing war narrative than mud, blood and heavy armour.  Tactically, both sides were naive to the point of infantility.  This genuinely detracts from what the film is supposed to be telling us because it’s all so false.  I realise that most people who watch ‘Fury’ won’t have military training and might not appreciate that the situation in which Brad and co find themselves is far from hopeless but this is what would probably have happened:

The five man crew of an isolated, disabled tank discover that a heavily armed ‘company plus’ of supposedly elite infantry are coming their way.  They’ve got several choices:  a. run away; b. heroically duke it out with the bad guys in an engagement which would, realistically, last a couple of minutes; c. even more heroically go and find someone with a working radio to bring in artillery and/or an airstrike to break up the enemy concentration.

The answer, if you hadn’t guessed, is c.

The HBO-BBC series ‘Band of Brothers’ demonstrated that you can make compelling war drama without descending into farcical, cartoon level tactics.  If you’re going to spend this much money on a movie ($68 million, apparently), you could surely go the extra yard to get a decent military script advisor on board.

It isn’t all bad.  There’s some good acting.  Brad Pitt is, as always, tremendously charismatic and a compelling screen presence.  I recently discovered that he’s actually older than I am, the bastard; and I guess in some Hollywood attic there’s a painting of a wrinkled, balding and slightly pot-bellied Brad, ageing away as the ‘real’ version remains forever youthful.  Shia LaBouef is good, as I’ve already mentioned, and Jason Isaacs puts in a decent turn in his second outing, after ‘Blackhawk Down’, as a US Army company commander.

There are also a few scenes which are compellingly realistic.  The brief moments of panic when our heroes are first contacted by the enemy, firstly in the Hitler Youth ambush, secondly by the Tiger tank, are well done.

But there isn’t much more than that and I was left wondering, after all three viewings, why anybody had bothered to make this.  It’s far less than the sum of its parts.

Rating:  ★★☆☆☆