ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Routine Actioner Falls Short

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AtomicBlonde

It’s 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War is about to get turned on its head.  Spies are running this way and that, and secrets are more closely guarded, as no one knows what will happen after the wall falls.

It’s in this world, the frenetic days leading up to the tearing down of the wall, in both East and West Berlin, that ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) takes place.

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to East Berlin to help  fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) extract a man with the code name Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has in his possession a list of spies which if it falls into the wrong hands would compromise the intelligence agencies of the west, namely Great Britain, the United States, and France.

As such, the CIA is involved, as their man Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) is working closely with MI6 operative and Lorraine’s superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones).  Likewise, the French also have an agent on the ground in East Berlin, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and they’re all working together— or are they?— to successfully get Spyglass out of East Berlin before his secrets fall into the hands of the heavy-handed KGB agents.

Further complicating matters is the knowledge that Spyglass has lost the list, but he also has committed it to memory, so the mission becomes twofold- get Spyglass out of East Berlin alive, and also find the missing list.  And oh yeah.  Someone in the operation is a double agent.  It’s a messy job in a messy city in an even messier time.

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay movie but falls short of expectations and never really captures the insanity of the waning days of East Berlin before the wall came down, nor does it possess enough style to overcome its story limitations.

Kurt Johnstad wrote the screenplay based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.  One of the bigger problems I had with ATOMIC BLONDE is for a movie based on a graphic novel, it doesn’t boast the best visuals.  First-time director David Leitch starts off fine with some colorful and energetic opening credits, but after that there isn’t a whole lot visually that captures the graphic novel feel. It seems as if Leitch couldn’t make up his mind whether he was making a colorful adaptation of a graphic novel or a hard-hitting cold war spy thriller.

The film also did not grab me right away and took a while to get going.  The second half is definitely stronger than the first, and there is a brutal and well-executed fight sequence between Lorraine and several KGB thugs towards the end that is by far the best action scene in the movie.  But for the most part the action in ATOMIC BLONDE is standard and by the numbers.

Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is also nothing to be excited about.  The dialogue is all rather flat, and the story is nothing we haven’t seen before.

ATOMIC BLONDE does boast a strong cast but even the presence of solid veteran actors doesn’t help all that much.

Charlize Theron is a wonderful actress, yet I think she was miscast here as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, as I didn’t find her all that believable in the role.  When she’s kicking the stuffing out of the KGB thugs, these scenes just didn’t ring true for me. Granted, she’s as beautiful as ever, but as the unstoppable indefatigable Lorraine Broughton, I wasn’t buying it.

I enjoyed Theron much more in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015).  Her performance in that movie was rugged and convincing.  Her performance in ATOMIC BLONDE is more like a Tom Cruise performance than a Tom Hardy performance.  The toughness and grit Theron showed in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD isn’t really on display here.

James McAvoy delivers a decent performance as David Percival, but in all honesty, it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before. Plus, he looks like he walked off the set of SPLIT (2016) and simply put on a coat to blend in on the streets of East Berlin.

Sofia Boutella is okay as French agent Delphine Lasalle, and I enjoyed her more here than in her recent turn as Ahmanet the Mummy in the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). But she was most memorable as the alien Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016).

Veteran actors Toby Jones and John Goodman are on hand as the older agents in the proceedings, Jones representing MI6, and Goodman the CIA.  They are both solid in supporting roles.

In the key role of Spyglass, Eddie Marsen does a decent job.  I actually enjoyed him more in THEIR FINEST (2017), where he played a different kind of agent, one that represents actors, in that superior period piece comedy drama about making a propaganda film about Dunkirk.

Bill Skarsgard, the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard, is memorable as Merkel, one of Lorraine’s contacts in East Berlin. It’s a small role, but I thought he gave one of the better performances in the movie.  Skarsgard will be playing Pennywise in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT (2017).

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay actioner, but it never really gets into high gear, nor does it possess the pizzazz to sustain its two hour running time.  The script is meh, the dialogue standard, and the story is routine, and while the actors are all solid in their roles, none of them put this film on their backs and carry it to the finish line.  Also, director David Leitch does little to make this one visually exciting or cinematic, save for one extremely well-executed fight scene.

At the end of the day, I expected more from ATOMIC BLONDE.  As it stands, it’s not bad, and it does remain fairly entertaining, but it’s not the in-your-face graphic novel interpretation it should have been.

It’s more sub-atomic than atomic.

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THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017) Hard Hitting Horror Movie Makes Its Mark

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belko_experiment larger poster

How low can humanity go?

For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

Belko Industries is a company located in Bogata, Colombia.  On a morning that begins like any other morning, the employees come to work, but  they soon notice that the non-American employees are being sent home, and there is a heavier military presence outside the office building.  Rumor has it that there has been some kind of bomb scare, which makes sense in this day and age, and so the 80 employees inside the office continue with business as usual.

Normalcy comes to a crashing halt when a voice announces over the intercom that unless the office workers kill two of their own, innocent people will die.  The doors to the building then lock and metal shielding covers all the windows, effectively locking the 80 occupants inside, and cell phone service is also disrupted.

At first, everyone believes it’s a prank, and they rationalize that as long as they stay calm, nothing bad is going to happen.  When the time limit comes and goes, the voice announces they have failed the first part of the test, and suddenly two people inside the office die as their heads explode.  The workers discover that their co-workers were not killed by gunshot blasts but rather by explosions from within their skulls.  They realize that they all have implants in the back of their necks, put there by the company as tracking devices in case they ever got kidnapped in the highly dangerous Colombian countryside.  Now they understand that they all have bombs inside their bodies, and so they know that whoever is responsible for this horror can kill them with ease.

The voice on the intercom raises the stakes:  unless they kill 30 people inside the building, the voice says 60 people will be killed, so they must kill 30 to save 30.  The employees pretty much divide into two camps, one led by Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) who believes killing is wrong, and that they must use their energies to find a way to escape, and the other led by Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who with his military background believes that it is best in order to save 30 lives, to eliminate 30 lives.

I really enjoyed THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, not because it’s a highbrow thought-provoking drama, but because it’s a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end.

Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

McLean crafts some very suspenseful scenes, the high point when Barry and his team round everyone up and decide to choose who will live and who will die.  Then the power goes out, and all hell breaks loose.

James Gunn’s screenplay presents the perfect set-up for a thriller and then executes it brilliantly.  Sure, the characters aren’t as fleshed out as one might want, but this movie is a rare instance where I didn’t mind the lack of character development.  The characters are all terrified, and knowing that they could die at any moment, was enough for me.  They become instantly sympathetic because their lives are in danger.

I wasn’t nuts about the ending.  It’s not weak enough to sink the movie, but it is certainly not the film’s best part.  It’s inevitable with a story like this that you want to know who is responsible and why, and I don’t think the answers provided here were anything special.  The ending just isn’t as satisfying as all that came before it.

Other than the strong screenplay, the best part of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the acting.

John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as Mike Milch.  He makes Mike a very likeable character who’s easy to route for.  He also cares for his co-workers and values their lives, which is something some of the others quickly forget.  Gallagher Jr. was also in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he was also very good, and he starred as the masked killer in the horror movie HUSH (2016).

Equally as good as Gallagher Jr. is Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris.  Goldwyn plays Norris as a three-dimensional character, not just a cardboard cutout.  While Norris sees himself as the man most qualified to both choose who lives and dies and then to be the one to pull the trigger at the executions, when the time arrives for him to do this, you can see the pain on his face.  The horror of what he is doing is not lost on him.

Adria Arjona also stands out as Mike’s co-worker and girlfriend Leandra.

John C. McGinley, probably most known for his role as Dr. Cox on the TV comedy series SCRUBS (2001-2010), but I always remember him for his outstanding portrayal as serial killer Edgler Vess in INTENSITY (1997), is excellent here as the unhinged Wendell Dukes, a role I could easily have seen Bruce Dern play back in his heyday.

The rest of the cast is also very good.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie.

In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies.  And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture that feeling of the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the third straight above average horror movie I’ve seen in 2017, following A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) and GET OUT (2017).  All three of these films have featured a fresh story that hasn’t relied on clichéd material.  Even better, all three films have been well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.

2017 so far has been an excellent year for horror movies.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT continues this trend.

It’s a relentlessly intense thriller that will have you squirming in your seat.  For a horror fan, you can’t ask for much more than that.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.