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.


There and Back Again

I’ve been a Trekkie since I watched the first episode on NBC when I was a kid. Maybe because of that, the original series was always closest to my heart. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out I watched it, but my reaction was they’d bleached out what I loved about the original series (even though they recycled an episode’s plot). It didn’t have the banter and emotional bond between the crew that made the original fun to watch. It also lost its humanity of exploring worlds for the benefit of all. While there were phasers and proton torpedoes in the original, the best episodes were where Kirk, Spock, et al used their intelligence rather than their weapons to overcome obstacles. While the subsequent movies (at least the even numbered ones) recaptured some of the original’s flavor, they were more action adventures and the message was lost.

With Star Trek Beyond, screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung have gotten close to the original’s perspective. They’re assisted by director Justin Lin, who took a third movie in a series with none of the original actors in major roles and turned The Fast and the Furious into a billion-dollar franchise with the three subsequent films he directed. While moving from hot rods to outer space may seem strange, the two series are surprisingly similar: a multi-ethnic crew that is like a family travels the world(s) on their mission that they accomplish because they work together in the face of huge odds.

In Beyond, that mission takes them physically beyond their known universe. The Enterprise is midway through its 5-year mission, and the long duration has caused some fraying of the bonds between the crew. Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling the stress of the mission, especially after an attempt to establish relations with a planet goes horribly – and humorously – wrong. He’s applied for the position of Vice-admiral on the Starbase Yorktown, a huge snow-globe in space whose artificial gravity has created a real-life M.C. Escher world. In his interview with the base commander (Shoreh Aghdashloo) he recommends Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his replacement as captain, unaware Spock is considering leaving the Enterprise as well.

When a lifeboat ship arrives at Yorktown, its passenger asks for help. She’s the captain of a ship that’s been disabled on a planet at the far side of an unexplored nebula. They need help to survive, so Kirk and crew, including Bones (Karl Urban), Zulu (John Cho), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), and Scotty (Pegg), head out to save them. But when they arrive a brutal trap is sprung by Krall (Idris Elba), the violent warlord who controls the planet. Marooned, the crew is split up – some captured by Krall, others seeking a way to rescue them. Scotty is saved by Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who had escaped Krall herself and survived as a scavenger.

Boutella is an excellent addition to the Trek Universe. She’d had a memorable performance as Samuel L. Jackson’s sharp assistant in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Here her physical skills, honed as a dancer, are even more on display, though she also makes you feel for her character. Elba’s power as a performer communicates even though he’s hidden under extensive makeup and prostetics. The crew’s characters have been set between the original series and the reboot, but Pegg and Jung’s script lets each of them shine a bit brighter since they’re broken down into smaller units rather than all sharing the same space. In particular, Saldana’s Uhura plays a more pivotal role than in the past two films.

Just as with the Fast and Furious, Lin keeps the action moving at a, well, a fast and furious pace. The set pieces and special effects are awesome, but whenever they seem to teeter close to overwhelming the story, he brings it back from the edge.

The original Star Trek series had its staying power because, although the scene was set in space, the stories dealt with conflicts and problems that related to a person’s everyday life. Episodes like “The Devil in the Dark,” “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield,” and “The Savage Curtain” retain their power to this day. Beyond follows in those original footsteps with a message that works as a space story, but also talks to this world in which we live now.

Knights of the Boardroom Table

In the 1960’s there were two main types of spy movies. There were the gritty, realistic films like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Ipcress File, and Funeral in Berlin (the last two both starring Michael Caine), and then there were the wry and slightly over the top – sometimes very over the top – James Bond films and its imitators like Our Man Flint or the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” films. With the latter movies, it was a short step to camp comedies like The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the World or Modesty Blaise. The spy genre got a kickstart in the new millennium with the Bourne series, which reinvigorated James Bond when Daniel Craig slipped into the tux. Now, in the new movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, we have a paean to those earlier fantasy spy films, though it also has a strong dose of Bourne in its blood.

Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar (who wrote the comics “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted,” both later filmed) and Dave Gibbons (who illustrated the classic “Watchmen”), the Kingsmen are operatives of a small but well-funded private intelligence operation. They take their cue from the legend of Arthur and his knights, roaming the world to do good, and their aliases are based on the characters from the legend. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is known as Galahad, while its weapons, tech and training officer is Merlin (Mark Strong). The head of the organization is, appropriately, known as Arthur (Michael Caine). When one of the agents is killed during a mission to save a kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill), the others are called upon to nominate a replacement, who are then all invited to a training class run by Merlin.

Galahad chooses Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), who on the face of it is an uncouth London youth on his way to becoming a criminal. Eggsy, though, is intelligent and capable, and he happens to be the son of a former Kingsman who sacrificed himself to save Galahad, Merlin and others. The training allows for a classic origins story, though with this one it’s like you’ve drunk a full bottle of adrenalin.

With Bond, the good ones have a great villain – something that is referenced in Kingsman. For this movie, it gets both a failing and a passing grade. The main villain, tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is too prissy and his lisp gets old real fast. What saves the film is his Odd Job, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose lower legs have been replaced by knife-blade prosthetics. Her fights are a blend of ballerina and ninja.

Firth gets to cut loose from the proper characters he’s often played while still maintaining a gentlemanly decorum. It’s like he’s followed Liam Neeson and discovered his inner action hero at an age when most action heroes should have retired. Instead the casting works wonderfully. Taron Egerton had done a couple of shorts and TV series back in the UK before 2014, when starred in Testament of Youth and filmed Kingsman. He’s almost too neat at first, but you forget about that once he meets up with Galahad. Mark Strong is wonderful as Merlin, and having Caine as Arthur is perfect, a bridge to the 1960s spy films.

Writer/Director Matthew Vaughn knows how to handle comic book material. He, along with his co-writer Jane Goldman, had done Kick-ass in 2010, and then rebooted the X-Men series wonderfully with X-Men: First Class in 2011 as well as doing the story for X-Men: Days of Future Past. (They also wrote the excellent spy-revenge drama The Debt in 2010, which was directed by John Madden and starred Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain.) In visual style, Kingsman dances along the edge of parody, but it has a giddy time doing it. The movie definitely goes over the top near the end, though it’s nothing to lose your head over. What helps is an intelligent script that has several surprising twists, and one complete shock.

Kingsman is a popcorn movie, an action flick that’s a good waste of time. It’s rare to get one of these outside of summer, when they usually fill the cinemas, and especially not in February where you normally have studios dumping their bombs like Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son. If you enjoy this type of action film, Kingsman does have some delights to offer.