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



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:  ★★☆☆☆

Review: Lone Survivor

I’ve described elsewhere on this blog what a shit person I am to watch war films with.  As a military historian who has also spent the last thirty years as a professional soldier, I am undeniably finicky about what constitutes a good war film.  My long-suffering wife and children know that if we watch a war film – or a spy film for that matter – they’re going to have to put up with a barrage of sneering and jeering as, for example, a 1950s American tank with a swastika on it is rolled out as a German World War Two King Tiger, or our hero takes out a bad guy at 300 metres with a 9mm pistol.  Indeed I’m sufficiently self-aware to dread watching crap war films on my own: I can feel the bile rise as the bullshit piles up and I inevitably find myself having to watch something cheery and life-affirming afterwards just to wash the stupid away.

So it was with some trepidation that I watched an illicit* screener version of ‘Lone Survivor’, starring ‘Marky Mark’ Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, a US Navy SEAL who was the lone survivor of a recce patrol gone to ratshit in Afghanistan in June 2005.  

It’s actually a classic tale of what can go wrong with supposedly ‘covert’ operations. A four man patrol was inserted to establish an observation post on an Afghan village in an attempt to identify the location of a wanted Taliban leader.  They found him but were themselves accidentally compromised by local goat herders, which then kicked off a firefight with the Taliban because the SEALs made the completely correct decision not to kill the goat herders who had bumped into them. In effect, a sort of American ‘Bravo Two Zero’.

I’m not going to put in any spoilers – the title really gives it away – but from a military point of view it was entirely credible. The Navy SEALs are not supermen, the operational fuck-ups are entirely credible and nobody has a magic weapon. It’s authentic, believable, gritty and poignant.

Interestingly, it also portrays the Afghanis with light and shade.  The Taliban are the bad guys, obviously, but as the story unfolds we see another heroic side to the Afghan tribal culture and Peter Berg, the director, does not back away from this.

The most comparable film I can think of is Ridley Scott’s ‘Blackhawk Down’ which described the US Special Forces’ big operational screw-up in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. ‘Lone Survivor’ may be indebted to ‘Blackhawk Down’, but not in a bad way.

So if you feel like going to see an action packed war film that examines some of the important issues and doesn’t hesitate to portray the complications of the Afghan civil war that we have somehow become involved in, I would unreservedly recommend ‘Lone Survivor’. In recompense for having unwittingly viewed an illegal copy, I will be buying the DVD for my library and I will also take my sons to see it.

*It wasn’t me wot downloaded it guv, and I didn’t know what we woz wotching, at first…

‘Watching War Films with my Dad’

Al Murray Pub Landlord

I’ve got a fairly regular gig reviewing modern military books for the ‘Literary Review’, Britain’s least up-its-own-arse literary magazine, but inevitably the instruction from the editor are quite clear:  ‘You’ve got a thousand words so stick to the point!’  (‘you driveling wanker!’, she probably adds, under her breath). Consequently, I’ve decided to use this blog to put up a few reviews of books, movies and other stuff that I’ve enjoyed with the added bonus that I can roam a bit more freely than I would be able to in a paid piece.  So here goes.

I’ve never met Al Murray* but I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw ‘The Pub Landlord’ in action, and I’ve bored my kids rigid with witty bon mots shamelessly stolen from him ever since:  ‘Where would we be without rules?  France’.  You get the picture.

But I’m not a comedy fanboy and until I bumped into him on Twitter, I had no idea about his fascination with military history.  Having read his new book ‘Watching War Films with My Dad’, a veil has been lifted from my eyes.   It turns out that a significant proportion of our early lives might have been pretty much interchangeable.

I’m a few years older than Al but for both of us, the cultural legacy of the Second World War looms large, as it does for many of our generation.  Al’s father served as a National Serviceman after World War Two and then carried on as a Territorial Army officer afterwards but managed to inculcate in his son his own deep fascination with the history of the conflict.

Which is not dissimilar to what happened to me.  My dad was fifteen when ‘The War’ broke out.  He was born and brought up in a small town in mid-Wales where his dad – my grandfather – owned the draper’s shop on the high street.

As it happens my grandfather was one of the town’s war heroes.  He had gone to London to seek his fortune in the early years of the 20th century and had ended up working at John Lewis’s department store on Oxford Street.  When war broke out in 1914, he volunteered for the Queen Victoria Rifles, the Territorial infantry regiment recruited from the East End of London where he lived.  He rose through the ranks to sergeant, serving on the Western Front before, in 1916, being commissioned in the field into the City of London Fusiliers.  So it was as an officer that, in 1918, he won the Military Cross commanding a trench mortar battery.  During the autumn offensive which finally defeated the German Army, he took one of his mortars out of cover and used it to neutralize a series of interlocking machine gun positions which were pinning down the advance in his sector.  Neat huh?

Clearly this had an impact on my dad.  His father, a clever but self-educated man, had managed to raise himself up from – in effect – the peasantry to become a respectable member of the provincial middle classes largely as a result of his martial valour.  It was a lesson my dad took to heart.

But it was not to be.  Dad was bright. Despite having to do his degree in two years, he managed to get the top First in 1943 and, instead of going into the army as he’d imagined, he was exempted from military service and drafted as an industrial chemist for Albright and Wilson’s in Birmingham, where he worked on refining the fillings for the incendiary bombs which were to be rained on Germany as the bomber offensive reached high gear.  His only military service was as an Officer-Cadet Corporal in the ‘Senior Training Corps’[1] at the university:  ‘the elite of Dad’s Army’ as he used to jokingly describe it.

I don’t know if he was disappointed by this, but I do know that he followed the course of the war with obsessional interest.  Brooke, Montgomery and, above all, Churchill were his absolute heroes; Slim, de Gaulle and Eisenhower weren’t far behind.  They stood tall against the Nazis (and obviously the Japanese in Slim’s case). For the rest of his life he devoured every book he could find about them.  He could talk through the fall of France in 1940 more or less day by day and he would pass long car journeys by telling us the story of Alamein, D Day or Arnhem.

The first film my dad took me to see  was the ‘Battle of Britain’ at the Marble Arch Odeon in – I suppose – 1969 when I was just five.  I loved it, particularly the bit when the Stuka pilot was shot so that his goggles filled up with blood. As was the custom in those days, we got a lavishly illustrated souvenir programme with lots of stuff about how the film was made which I kept for donkey’s years.

By then I’d already started making Airfix models, with much maternal help (dad was a big man with hands like shovels, he captained the University of Wales 1st XV as a second row: fine handicrafts weren’t his thing) and he explained to me that the reason that the German aircraft looked different to the ones I’d made was because they were actually post-war Spanish version of the original German planes.  It wasn’t until much later that I wondered why Spain was making early 40’s propeller-driven military aircraft for use in the jet age: the answer is, basically, that Fascists are fucking idiots.

Thereafter, it was a roller coaster of enthusiastic juvenile militarism.  Early dabbling in Airfix Spitfires, Hurricanes, Stukas and Messerschmidts led on to Action Man.  Between us, my brother and I eventually had about twelve of them, in various states of decrepitude, ranging from the earliest, with painted hair and fixed hands, to the last, with gripping hands, ‘eagle eyes’ and astroturf hair and beards (for the naval ones).  Alpha to Omega. This was the toy of my childhood.

My brother Simon and I were fully equipped for Action Man wars.  Apart from the soldiers (OK Al, dolls) we had the armoured car, the Scorpion light tank and – I seem to remember – a helicopter, together with a plethora of uniforms.  Army officer; paratrooper; frogman; German stormtrooper; Foreign Legionnaire; the whole nine yards.  We collected Action Man ‘stars’ and earnestly supplemented the retail goodies with the stuff you couldn’t get from the shops.  My brother got the Mountie outfit with the fierce but rigid dog; I got two Action Men naked in plain, brown wrappings. Kinky.

Around about my eleventh birthday, I discovered Japanese Tamiya models.  There was shop near us in South Kensington called Seagull Models and it was there I bought my first Tamiya 1:35th scale tank.  It was a German Panzer Mark 2 which came with a little set of Afrika Korps figures.  These were great, far more detailed than the polythene Airfix 1:32 scale toy soldiers that my brother and I played with.  After this start, I began to acquire the paints, brushes and other paraphernalia that you need to make a really good job, and slowly but surely I got hooked.  I reckon that between the ages of 11 and about 17 I always had some kind of 1:35th scale modelling project on the go.

Alongside the models came the books.  My dad had a good library of World War Two literature which I had ploughed through, but my own collection soon became pretty respectable too, and actually hasn’t stopped growing.  All of which has meant that I’ve become pretty much impossible to watch war films with.  Inevitably they use the wrong tanks, the wrong uniforms and the wrong guns. I now find I sit in front of them, pointing out these little failings to anyone around me.  This usually means I end up watching war films alone.  The same is also true of spy films:  having spent a significant chunk of my life working in intelligence, the extent of my spy-related, pettifogging, nit-pickery knows no bounds.

So I was gratified to learn that this behavior pattern isn’t just me.  Al Murray does it too.  He identifies the 1960s era Leopard 1 tank in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (set in 1944) as a particular bête noir (actually this doesn’t bother me too much, the Leopard was pretty much the descendant of the World War Two Panther – just look at the hull shape) and he rightly excoriates the 1960s shite-fest that is (or was) ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ which used crappy and insignificant post-war American M48 tanks as ‘King Tigers’.  So we’re definitely singing off the same hymn sheet (having said that, he does misidentify the ‘Panzerlied’ in the film as being the ‘Horst Wessel’ song.  Tsk, tsk, Al:  one ‘War Bore’ point to me).

I suppose the big difference between me and Al Murray is that I took my obsession with military history to what I saw as its logical conclusion and became a soldier.  I don’t know if I expected that this would get the whole military thing ‘out of my system’ but the fact is that it hasn’t.  I’m still annoying wife, kids and anyone else who watches a war film with me as much as I ever did, and I’ve actually extended my range to include the present day.  Don’t give me your gritty, Iraq-based dramas, muthafuckas:  I was there!

Action Man:  gripping hands, realistic hair but, alas, no eagle eyes.

Action Man: gripping hands, realistic hair but, alas, no eagle eyes.

‘Watching War Films with my Dad’ is a funny book but it’s thoughtful as much as knockabout, and informative too.  It would be easy to forget that Al Murray is an Oxford history graduate but he is, and a sharp historian’s mind informs the text.  It’s the complete package for the military pedant:  you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll find out who invented canned food and why.

So, highly recommended.  Incidentally, if you want my take on the most realistic war film, it’s ‘Downfall’, the classic account of the last days in Hitler’s bunker in 1945 (though don’t get me started about Waffen-SS troops wearing dot-pattern camouflaged helmet covers – I mean, for God’s sake!).  But if you want to know how modern day British soldiers behave, I’d recommend the werewolf black comedy ‘Dog Soldiers’: it’s absolutely bang on.

Buy it from Amazon

* Since I wrote this I have, and a very nice chap he is too!

[1] I think this was actually the ‘Senior Division of the Officer Training Corps’.  In those days, the ‘Junior Division’ of the OTC was what we would now call the CCF in Public Schools and Grammar Schools; the ‘Senior Division’ were the University OTCs.