“Atomic Blonde”

AT THE CONCLUSION of Atomic Blonde, once the credits had ceased to roll and the lights had come up, a man several seats away from me and impressively wasted turned to his companion and said, or rather slurred, “bit pony, wasn’t it?” What our friend lacked in eloquence he made up for in accuracy, because bit pony Atomic Blonde certainly was. The film is a comic book adaptation that owes much to the James Bond franchise but more to the Bourne series in the sense that, like the title character of those films, our platinum-haired heroine is really quite bland when she isn’t turning someone’s face to mush. Ultimately the film is heavy on style and light on substance, despite the best efforts of a handful of those involved.

The film begins with the semiquaver kick drum intro to New Order’s Blue Monday and the murder of a moustachioed spy in Cold War Berlin. It quickly becomes apparent that the film is very self-consciously Eighties and very self-consciously Cold War. Expect, in other words, questionable choices of attire, mass demonstrations, lingering shots of The Wall, double agents, and the dulcet tones of David Bowie, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and Dave Gahan. MI6 dispatch top agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to retrieve a list which contains the identities of various spies and is at danger of falling into the bloody and calloused hands of the K.G.B., who, in keeping with Cold War cliché, say things like, “capitalist bastard!” and all sport facial hair. Broughton’s contact in Berlin is whisky-drinking station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who is interesting if not entirely convincing. McAvoy is reunited with Filth co-star Eddie Marsan, who plays a man with the code-name Spyglass.

Expect questionable choices of attire, mass demonstrations, lingering shots of The Wall, double agents, and the dulcet tones of David Bowie, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and Dave Gahan.

From the opening scene I was reminded of Watchmen. Like Watchmen, Atomic Blonde was based on a graphic novel––Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’sThe Coldest City––and is set during the Cold War. It also involves chart-topping Eighties tunes and regular doses of violence. But it’s the Bond and Bourne films from which Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad borrow most heavily. There’s an escape which is lifted from the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough, and a line of dialogue that that is almost verbatim what Dominic Greene tells Bond in A Quantum of Solace about the propensity of those around him to, well, die. Our heroine is far more Bourne than Bond, however. She is as nearly as possible to devoid of all emotion and expression and, when she isn’t mashing puddles of blood of someone or other, charisma. This isn’t helped by the fact that Theron’s accent is all over the shop, so to speak, to the extent that McAvoy’s own occasional lapses seem minor. Toby Jones, John Goodman and Inglourious Basterds actor Til Schweiger also feature and are typically good, and Sofia Boutella, moving on from the dreadful The Mummy, is suitably mysterious and alluring as a French spy.

David Leitch has something of a talent for choreographing a particularly gruesome demise, and in Atomic Blonde a set of car keys, and ice pick and a high heel (a killetto?) are happily employed as instruments of death.

David Leitch is better known for his stunts than he is for his direction, but he is nevertheless the man who helped to create John Wick and is hard at work on the second instalment of Deadpool. He has something of a talent for choreographing a particularly gruesome demise, and in Atomic Blonde a set of car keys, and ice pick and a high heel (a killetto?) are happily employed as instruments of death. The action sequences are brilliantly choreographed and filmed. A single-take staircase brawl and a particularly violent murder to Nena’s 99 Luftballons are particularly good. Much of this is to the credit of cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who also worked on John Wick in addition to Law Abiding Citizen. Annoyingly, however, Sela has a tendency to resort occasionally to camera gimmickry that has more than a passing resemblance to Guy Ritchie’s signature style.

Atomic Blonde is ultimately stylish but too often dull, and far too long. Once you’ve had your fill of the neon and the Berlin cityscape the tedious spells in between each action sequence become unbearable. The film might have been the sort of relentlessly violent action-thriller that is in the vein of John Wick or Mad Max, in which, it bears remembering, Charlize Theron’s excellent turn as Imperator Furiosa heralded the arrival of a new kind of female action hero. Theron is more than a worthy action lead, but the underwhelming storytelling and characterisation in Atomic Blonde makes it the wrong sort of vehicle for her acting skill.


‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

IF YOU WOULD LIKE further proof that the incessant adaptation to film of tired comic book franchises has gone a tad too far, sit through the latest offering in Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.

It’s bigger, it’s bolder, it’s badder. It’s even called Apocalypse, for goodness’ sake. And, most of all, it’s really boring.

If you have forgotten the events of the second instalment in the prequel trilogy, Days of Future Past, I do not blame you. After all, it was instantly forgettable. Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt, where we are informed via voiceover by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) that the first mutants were revered as deities. Then, just in case you weren’t paying attention, we see the familiar figures of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon inside a pyramid, standing around a supine figure on a stone slab. The figure is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who is betrayed by his treacherous followers and enters a thousand-year-long sleep before being woken up in the modern day by a group of cultish idiots, at which point he promptly tries his very best to end the world.

Mercifully, Apocalypse saves us the tedious origin stories, instead introducing most of the major characters––Cyclops, Angel, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler among them––neatly in a five-minute, globe-trotting whip-around. There are familiar faces, too, notably Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who now has a young family and is living a happy, humble life in Poland. No prizes for guessing how that turns out for him.

Somehow, nobody in a modern Egyptian medina notices our eponymous villain, who looks like a Pleistocene Senator Palpatine moonlighting as backup for the Blue Man Group, as he taps up a mohawk-sporting Storm, who is using her weather-control superpower––badly––to steal from the vendors. Apocalypse subsequently goes on a recruitment drive, winning over young mutants by levelling up their existing powers and kitting them out in fetish gear.

It was about midway through, at the time that Pleistocene Palpatine begins making a fire-and-brimstone speech about humanity’s various shortcomings, that I started to wish for an actual apocalypse, and even a scene involving flying missiles and the sound of Beethoven’s glorious seventh symphony failed to capture my interest, let alone imbue the film with the drama it desperately needed.

For reasons I haven’t quite determined, Apocalypse is jam-packed with references to the original trilogy and to the pop culture of the Eighties period in which the film is set. Nightcrawler, who looks to be returning from a Bullet For My Valentine gig, wears Michael Jackson’s iconic red Thriller jacket on a trip to the mall suggested by Scott Summers, who channels Ferris Bueller in his thick quartz sunglasses. The film also alludes, rather heavy-handedly, to modern-day issues such as mass surveillance, hacking and nuclear proliferation. The CIA, Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) notes, would kill to get their hands on Charles Xavier’s mass-mind-reading machine, Cerebro. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear Edward Snowden bashing his head against the wall of his shack in the Russian wilderness.

Nevertheless, Apocalypse does have its moments. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steals the show for the second X-Men film on the trot––in one scene, he zips around at supersonic speed to the dulcet synth-pop tones of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. There’s humour, too, which comes courtesy of James McAvoy’s hirsute young Xavier, still a welcome departure from Patrick Stewart’s kindly old Professor X. of the original trilogy, and one of the best things about the film. It is no spoiler to say that everyone’s favourite wisecracking Canadian mutant shows up to dish out a little violence. It isn’t quite on the level of his killing spree during the raid on the school in X2, but it is, nevertheless, one of the best action sequences of the film.

The great strength of the X-Men comics has always been to render concepts such as prejudice, racism, segregation and alienation understandable and relatable to young audiences (“everyone fears that which they do not understand,” Xavier tells Jean Grey) but Apocalypse devolves very early on into your camp, garden-variety, spandex-and-explosions superhero tedium, totally devoid of subtlety or self-awareness and overly preoccupied with blunt references to pop culture and the issues du jour. It’s a joyless struggle that makes a mid-season episode of Stargate look like high cinema and lets down a very strong cast of actors with a stilted, humourless script. Die-hard fans of the X-Men may well enjoy the film, but for the casual movie fan, I say save your shekels and your time.