Atomic Blonde is easy to praise for its action sequences. They’re big and flashy but with the tight choreography and training that draws attention (rather than masks, as in many action movies) to the details. Charlize Theron‘s badassery as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is undeniable, but beyond the fight style developed by director David Leitch in John Wick (along with fellow stuntman/director Chad Stahelski), her film executes its action and its victims with a panache necessary to its success. This humorous approach (if not with jokes, than with a tongue-in-bloody-cheek sensibility) came across in John Wick as well. Atomic Blonde‘s ample use of slapstick peppered throughout its intense and engrossing action works as well for the movie as its decisions to undercut many scenes to soften their edges.
John Wick’s “gun-fu” whirlwind of fists and headshots became a sensation, but its humor separates it from less accessible films in a genre that can make even seasoned gorehounds and adrenaline junkies uncomfortable. Cold-hearted killing can be fascinating to watch, but to be fun there needs to be more behind it. One of the film’s first examples of how to solve this problem comes when Wick (Keanu Reeves) answers the door after an introductory rampage to deal with a noise complaint.
We get a small bit of undercut suspense in the restrained conversation, which gives drama and relief while communicating to the audience that the danger has ended, tying the action with a neat bow. Ending the scene with a gag rather than when the last body hits the floor makes it more memorable and more enjoyable. It makes the central character feel more like a character and less like a soulless punch machine, allowing them (both Wick and Broughton) distance from the connotations of the violence and the visual mechanization of their bodies that such highly-coordinated fight scenes require. Reaction shots to interpersonal expectations being explored in unexpected ways is the stuff of comedies, throwing us into a different gear from the relentless ass-kicking of highly-trained professionals. Humor brings them back to humanity.
The late Michael Nyqvist brought this strategy to his villainous role in John Wick. The script is clever and Nyqvist moreso with his deadpan practicality and creeping fear filling each conversation. He’s terrified of John Wick and hell, so are we. We shouldn’t be on this crime lord’s side, but we are and crack a smile accordingly. This comes up in Atomic Blonde during a fight where Broughton kills a few henchmen and stabs some car keys through a guy’s cheek. It’s horrible and violent and badass, then the henchman asks her if she’s crazy. His boss only wants to talk to her. Why is she overreacting so hard? This brief pause in the onslaught doesn’t deflate the scene’s impact, but adds depth. There’s the pleasure of mixing action and verbal humor, but there’s also the complexity added when an audience is point-blank asked to reconsider their relationship to a hero that starts killing at the drop of a hat.
Atomic Blonde’s James McAvoy, while certainly in a different relationship to the protagonist and humor, brings a similar energy and spirit as Nyqvist. Opposed to the ice cold heroes of these two films, its second bills have a lot to play against. McAvoy brings the manic delivery and wild grin he’s honed in movies like Filth to combat the wry half-smiles and piercing glares dealt by Theron. Where Nyqvist rambled dry asides, McAvoy goes big and broad mixing vulgarity (testicle jokes!) and flirtation (also testicle jokes?). But most of Atomic Blonde’s humor comes built into its action gracefully, reminiscent, in its brief appearances, of an Edgar Wright film for its modern and sharp visual sensibility. Even if that means cutting to the face of poor, decidedly unsteamy Toby Jones in the middle of a steamy sex scene.
Atomic Blonde’s climactic, immense, stunner of a final action scene involves Broughton dragging around and protecting another spy (not the cool, James Bond kind but the bespectacled Edward Snowden kind) brilliantly played by Eddie Marsan. The juxtaposition of Theron’s hypercompetent killer and Marsan’s bumbling nerd is already entertaining, but when the action zips along at such a high level, our emotions are so heightened that an unexpected joke can land with the same force as a car crash. Marsan’s character becomes injured during the ten minute continuous shot (I thought I caught two edits on my second viewing but they’re well hidden) and must deal with the injury. So in the midst of a bruised and beaten Broughton battling the biggest and baddest henchman we’ve seen yet, evenly matched and equally tired, sometimes there’s just a doughy dad duct taping himself back together in the background.
What could’ve been a blitzkrieg on the senses and the attention span is metered by visual humor that still counts as “action” (bandaging a wound) but still contrasts with the “serious” fighting that the majority of the film’s praise has been heaped upon. A punchline following a clothesline makes both more effective, and Leitch has a winning one-two combo in John Wick and Atomic Blonde. I’m now more than hopeful for his forthcoming directorial effort Deadpool 2, a sequel that’ll need his deft hand with action as much as his restrained sense of humor.