The Name is Blonde…Atomic Blonde

For years there have been rumblings that it was time for a female to inherit the role of James Bond. 1995’s GoldenEye caused shock for some when Judi Dench took over as M, even though in real life MI-5 already had its first female Director-General, Stella Rimington, since 1992. Dench became one of the best parts of the series for the next 20 years.

We’ve seen a renaissance for the female hero. Wonder Woman has spent the last few months in the top 10 at the box office, and Jodie Whittaker will take over the most iconic role in British Science Fiction as the 14th Doctor. The most compelling characters in the powerhouse “Game of Thrones” are the women, particularly the lethally evil Cersei, her nemesis Daenerys, and the assassin Arya. (They’ve also survived, where most of the men have not.) Daniel Craig remains as 007, but progress has a way of building a better road if the old path is closed. So we have Charlize Theron out-Bonding Bond in the spy thriller Atomic Blonde.

Theron not only stars but produced the film. She’d bought the rights to the graphic novel “The Coldest City” before it was published. Kurt Johnstad, hired to adapt the story, is best known for adapting another graphic novel to the screen: Frank Miller’s 300. Directing duties were given to David Leitch, the former stuntman/actor who helped make John Wick a sleeper hit. In fact, Theron trained with Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for John Wick: Chapter 2. But what helped launch the filming of Blonde was Theron’s visceral performance as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. While Tom Hardy had the title role, the movie revolved around Furiosa at its heart. Theron delivered in the role, and showed she could handle the action.

Rather than use Bond as a template, Blonde’s DNA goes back to the hard-edged spy movies of the 1960s that were a reaction against the camp of 007. Blonde has the blood of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File (among others) spilling across the screen. It also has the violent action turned up to eleven, including a ten-minute ballet of bullets and blood that’s cut to look like one continuous shot. The camera twists through 360 degree turns as Theron fights her way down a staircase and out of a building.

The story is set in November 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s told in flashback as MI-6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is debriefed by her superior Eric Gray (Tobey Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), while the head of MI-6, C (James Faulkner), watches through one-way glass. She was sent to Berlin to recover a miniaturized file hidden in a watch that has information about agents around the globe. A Soviet agent took it off a British agent, killing the Brit in the process, but rather than submit it to Moscow, he’s gone rogue and aims to sell the file to the highest bidder.

The mission’s compromised from the moment Broughton steps off her flight to Berlin. Representatives of a KGB arms dealer try to kidnap her at the airport, but she manages to escape and makes contact with the British station chief in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). Percival covers his spy activities as a black marketer in East Berlin, though it’s an open question as to which job has his loyalties. Also in the mix is a beautiful though inexperienced French agent, Delphine LaSalle (Sofia Boutella), and a Stasi officer codenamed Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who wants to defect.

The plot of Atomic Blonde is a dizzying trail of double- and triple-crosses. You may find yourself wishing for a score card to help keep track of everything. Boughton is almost constantly in peril, but those who go up against her find themselves to be the ones in danger. With her background in dance, and after working with eight trainers in preparation for the movie, Theron shows herself to be a match for any male action hero. But don’t mistake the physical action for the cartoonish version seen in many films. Leitch shows the physical and emotional drain of the fight sequences. When characters get hit, including Theron’s Boughton, there’s pain to pay, and the audience itself is out of breath by the end.

On the other hand, Theron can out-sex-appeal any secret agent in any movie, which creates an interesting dichotomy to the film. McAvoy is effective as the dissolute Percival so you’re never sure which game he’s playing until close to the climax of the film. It’s good to see Sofia Boutella play a realistic and sympathetic character here, after her Odd Job with legs role in Kingsman: The Secret Service, her heavily-made-up turn in Star Trek Beyond, and of course her mummy-issues with Tom Cruise.

While James Bond remains a bastion of unrepentant paternalism, the old “weakest sex” trope is dying away (albeit slower than it should). I think if Bond and Broughton went up against each other, my money would be on Broughton to walk away the winner.

“Damn Few”

Each year brings a new crop of action films, often with over-the-top violence and story lines that jumped the shark while they were still being written.  This past year, though, one of the best action stories wasn’t on movie screens, it was on the TV news – Osama bin Laden being killed by Navy SEALs.  Now, in one of those serendipitous moments of timing, in the movie theaters is a story revolving around this elite unit, starring active duty SEALs.

Two independent movie makers, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (who work under the name the Bandito Brothers), set out to make a realistic story about Navy SEALs.  (SEAL is an acronym for Sea, Air and Land; they are elite troops organized into small units designed to fight in any environment.)  The movie makers began by interviewing the soldiers, and from those interviews they garnered five actual events that they could string together into a narrative.  But while doing the interviews, they realized that the only way to tell the story truthfully was to use the real SEALs as the team in the movie.

The story sweeps around the world.  In Indonesia, the American ambassador is killed, along with a number of children, in a bomb attack at his son’s school.  In Central America, a CIA agent named Lisa Morales (Roselyn Sanchez) is undercover, watching a drug smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov).  The CIA has picked up information tying Christo to the terrorist behind the Ambassador’s assassination, Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle), and to smuggling weapons.  But before she can get too far, her handler (Nestor Serrano) is killed and she’s kidnapped and tortured.

SEAL Team 7, under the command of Lieutenant Dave, is given the mission of rescuing Morales.  (The active duty soldiers are only identified by their first names, though captions also give their number of tours of duty and the medals they’ve earned.)  In a wonderfully tense and choreographed sequence, they enter the compound where she’s being held, silently dispatching several guards along the way, and rescue Morales.  Then they must race through the jungle, pursued by the smuggler’s forces, to reach a river extraction site.  In the course of the rescue, the team captures one of Christo’s cell phones.  Through data mined from it, Naval Intelligence discovers Abu Shabal has set in motion a terrorist attack that will be even more crippling than 9/11.

During filming, the directors conferred with the SEALs, giving them the situation and having them map out their plan of attack.  All of the action in the movie has that realism and uses real equipment, from aircraft carriers and submarines down to model-airplane-size drones.  The directors also used helmet cameras to give you a “down the gun sight” view of some of the action.   Different from any other fictional movie, this film also includes live fire.  It’s incredible to see what a minigun can actually do to a pickup truck.

What helps make the movie is the naturalness of the SEALs when they’re on camera.  During down-time scenes, such as a beach party before their deployment, the soldiers blend beautifully with the actors playing their friends and families.  The movie actually took two years to make, because some of the SEALs would go on deployment for a while.  When they came back, the filmmakers would shoot the next scenes.

This is the first movie filmed using a Canon 5D Mark II digital camera.  It’s the size of an old 35mm camera, but it can film 21 megapixel digital video.  If the kids who once filmed with their parents’ 8mm cameras years ago (people with names like Spielberg and Abrams) were starting today, they could begin with equipment comparable to high-end Panavision cameras, without the need for spotlights to light the scene.  Regular light is enough.

This film is not high art, but for what it is – an action movie – it is thrilling to watch.  With Special Ops becoming more the focus of the military, this movie is also an effective recruitment video.  Though, as the SEALs acknowledge when they toast their comrades, they are the “damn few.”

The movie includes the reading of a piece composed by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh.  It is a fitting requiem for warriors of any time:

 When your time comes to die, be not like those

whose hearts are filled with fear of death,

so that when their time comes they weep and pray

for a little more time to live their lives over again

in a different way.

Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.

Is It Safe?

The trilogy of Jason Bourne films – especially the second, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy – changed the visual language films used to tell an action/adventure story.  Tight close-ups and quick cuts within a lean and focused story are now the standard.  You also have heroes who are anything but supermen.  They bleed, they feel pain, but they also used their abilities to the upmost in pursuit of a goal.  When there are car chases, vehicles get wrecked, including the hero’s.  It’s a far cry from the over-the-top action in some of the James Bond films, such as when the car he’s driving is sliced in half but still he continues driving it, like you had in A View To A Kill.  You can see the Bourne influence in the exceptional Bond-reboot, Casino Royale.

Now Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds have entered this revitalized genre with Safe House, a riveting chase set in South Africa’s Cape Province.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a low-level CIA operative assigned to running a safe house located in Cape Town, South Africa.  It’s a mind-numbing assignment, and Weston desperately wants out.  He’d like a posting in Paris so he can follow his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder) who is moving there to pursue her medical career.  Weston contacts his mentor in the Agency, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), but Barlow’s response isn’t promising.

Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Washington) surfaces in Cape Town.  He’s a former agent who went rogue a decade earlier and is wanted by several countries for espionage.  In his CIA days, he was the agency’s premier interrogator and a master manipulator.  Frost is in Cape Town to meet a former MI-6 operative, Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham), and purchase a microchip from him.  The meeting is blown and Wade is killed.  Frost tries to escape his pursuers, but in the end the only way to survive is to walk into the US Consulate, where he’s immediately detained.

Frost’s surfacing sends major shock waves through CIA headquarters.  Deputy Director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) orders Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) to get her interrogation team there since they can arrive faster that the team Barlow has in Europe.  The team, under the command of David Kiefer (Robert Patrick) brings Frost to Weston’s safe house and waterboards him to loosen him up for the questioning.  But almost immediately the safe house is attacked by the mercenaries who tried to get Frost earlier that day.  With the interrogation team taken out, Weston escapes, dragging Frost with him.

One aspect of David Guggenheim’s excellent script is that the story doesn’t slip into an Us vs. Them simplicity.  Each character has their own agenda that they pursue.  Even though Weston has saved Frost from the squad that’s after him, it doesn’t mean that Frost and he are suddenly allies.  In that sense, Safe House is a story of Weston earning both the respect of others, as well as self-respect.  While this is Guggenheim’s first produced movie script, he writes with assurance and depth.

Director Daniel Espinosa has done a few movies in his native Sweden, but this is his first major Hollywood movie.  He utilizes the Cape Town area wonderfully, from the cosmopolitan city to the slum townships on the outskirts to the beautiful Cape countryside.  He knows how to pace the action, giving the audience a moment to catch its breath and process what has happened before a new twist puts the characters in peril.

Denzil  Washington brings a wonderful menace to the role of Frost.  Even when he’s in handcuffs, you know he’s still dangerous.  While he’s not the completely amoral detective in Training Day, he’s on the edge, and it’s wonderful watching him walk the tightrope.  Ryan Reynolds recovers from the major misstep of last year’s The Green Lantern and delivers a nuanced and assured performance.  Weston starts the movie with a pretty high opinion of himself but as the movie progresses he actually grows to become that person.

The rest of the actors match the intensity of the stars.  Two beautifully done shorter roles are Ruben Blades as Carlos, a dealer in identities that Frost knows, and Joel Kinnaman (AMC’s The Killing) as Keller, the minder of another safe house.

Or is it safe?  This is a movie that lives up to its tag line – No One Is Safe.  If you like your action mixed with intelligence, you’ll find it worthwhile checking into this Safe House.

Mission: Accomplished

The Mission: Impossible movie franchise has had different directors for each of its four installments, with so-so results.  For the 1996 original it was Brian De Palma, who’d been directing thrillers since the 1970’s and had scored big with Carrie and The Untouchables.  It took the TV series premise and raised the stakes to movie levels, but while it made money it wasn’t a critical success.  For MI:2 in 2000 the producers recruited Hong Kong legend John Woo.  He made a John Woo film, even down to the iconic Woo shot of the antagonists with guns aimed at each other’s head one arm’s length apart, and grafted some Mission: Impossible elements onto that story.  It was financially successful, making a hundred million more worldwide than the original, but the blending of styles was jarring.  (Tom Cruise, walking in on the bad guys in slow motion, surrounded by flying white doves?)  For 2006’s MI:3, they went with television director and producer extraordinaire  J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost), directing his first big-screen film.  While it was an improvement on MI:2, Abrams tried to make the story more realistic, and sacrificed the fun of the gadgetry and twists that were the hallmarks of the original show.  While it grossed almost $400 million worldwide, that was the worst showing of the series.  The movie wasn’t helped by Cruise’s jumping on Oprah’s couch the year before.  (Abrams did much better when he rebooted another TV franchise from the 1960’s, Star Trek.)

When the director for the 4th installment was announced, the choice was unusual.  Brad Bird had never directed a live-action movie before.  He’d made his name in animation, first with the classically animated Iron Giant, and then two excellent Pixar computer animation films, The Incredibles and Ratatoule.  On the plus side, The Incredibles is the best superhero film made by someone who doesn’t have the last name of Nolan.  But other than the voice track, an animation director doesn’t have to work with actors.

Bird, though, took the best elements of animation – tight story line, wit humor, and surprising action – and created the best Mission:Impossible ever, going all the way back to Peter Graves, Martin Landau, and the original IMF team.

The film begins with a jolt as an operative named Hanaway (Josh Holloway, Lost) bursts from a roof access door on an Eastern European train station, pursued by bad guys.  He launches himself off the roof and shoots the bad guys as he falls, only to be saved by an IMF gadget, a man-sized air cushion.  As he walks away, though, he’s killed by the assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux) who steals the file he was protecting.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is sprung from a Moscow prison by two members of the IMF, Jane (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg), who’d made it into the field after being an desk jockey analyst in MI:3. They’re given the task of breaking into the Kremlin security archives to find the identity of a terrorist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist).  But Hendricks has already wiped the files, and the mission goes horribly wrong when that section of the Kremlin is destroyed by a huge explosion.

Hunt is captured by the Russians, but he manages to escape from the hospital where he was being treated after the explosion.  He’s picked up by a black SUV that’s carrying the famous “Secretary,” the one who would always disavow any knowledge of the IMF should they be captured or killed (an uncredited Tom Wilkinson).  In the SUV with the secretary is Brandt (Jeremy Renner), whom the secretary introduces as an analyst.  The secretary explains that the president has invoked the Ghost Protocol, wiping the IMF from the books.  The only agents left in the field are Ethan, Jane and Benji.  The secretary “suggests” that Ethan could assault him and Brandt, and then discover and stop whatever attack Hendricks is planning.  But before Ethan can do that, the SUV is ambushed.  Ethan and crew find themselves saddled with Brandt, who may know more than he’s letting on.

The movie races forward, moving through exotic locations (Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai).  Several of the set pieces harken back to the original series, such as a meeting taking place on separate floors of the world’s tallest hotel.  The team has only the technology they’ve scrounged from one IMF outpost, and not everything works properly, forcing them to improvise.

And that is a major difference with this movie.  Unlike the other Mission: Impossible movies, this is not the Tom Cruise show with a couple of supporting players.  The four are a team, and each is important.  (It’s even reflected in the movie’s poster, which features all four actors, rather than the Cruise headshots used for the other three movies.)  Paula Patton hadn’t appeared in an action film before, having mostly done dramas or dramedies like Precious and Jumping the Broom.  However, she kicks butt as good as any of the boys.  Jeremy Renner brings the dangerous edge that he displayed in The Hurt Locker and The Town, though this time there’s multiple layers to the character that are peeled back slowly.  Simon Pegg’s wisecracking humor shines, though all of the principal characters have humor as part of their character.  The support of the others allows Cruise to shine.  It’s his best performance in years.

While Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks spends most of the film in the background, his final confrontation with Cruise is a stunning piece of choreography.  Interestingly, Nyqvist had played the journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander.  Now Nyqvist is in the #1 movie at the box office, while Rapace is in the #2 with the new Sherlock Holmes, both of them beating out the English-language version of Tattoo.

What Brad Bird et al have done is given us one of the most animated action movies ever.  It’s breathed new life into this series, and into Cruise’s career after several misfires (Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day).  It may have seemed like an impossible mission, but instead it’s a mission accomplished.