REVIEW DOUBLE BILL: Atomic Blonde & Shin Godzilla

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde

2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)
James Blonde. Joan Wick. Taken with a pinch of Salt.1

It may sound derivative, but it’s a formula that can reap bountiful rewards. You take a frosty cool female lead, drop them into a previously male-dominated genre, and unleash their ass-kicking potential.2 It’s an approach that Atomic Blonde now brings to the oh-so-masculine spy genre.

Lorraine Broughton (a frosty Charlize Theron) is a bleach-blonde British secret agent with a penchant for baths of ice and a cool contempt for her superiors.3 She’s dispatched to Berlin to recover a list of operatives of one whom is, predictably, a damn dirty double agent. Her only contact is the chronically unreliable Harry Percival (James McAvoy), a shorn-headed, great-coat sporting rogue element. From the moment you see him, he epitomizes the antiquated phrase “gone native”, which is useful ‘cause then someone immediately describes him as having done such.4

Berlin, on the verge of The Wall coming down5 and set to a stylish ‘80s soundtrack6 it can’t distract from a general lack of intrigue.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City[Written by Antony Johnston.[/note], the spy-craft Broughton executes might seem fresh in the pages of a comic7, but it plays as repackaged sub-Le Carre on the big screen. A film where intelligence is passed along covertly in wristwatches, Atomic Blonde spends too much of its 115 minutes just marking time. It doesn’t help that Theron, as in Fast & Furious 8, is essentially playing a cipher.8. The film aims to keep its protagonist mysterious, to suggest hidden depths under that frosty façade, but she seems largely apathetic.

Only one extended fight sequence truly quickens the pace as Broughton brawls with two KGB thugs in an apartment hallway; all three growing increasingly bloodied and exhausted as the fight drags on. Seemingly shot in a single take, it’s a rougher, less stylised version of what director David Leitch brought to John Wick, which he co-directed with fellow former stuntman Chad Stahelski. Where Wick – and especially Chapter 2 – were dark and elegant, Atomic Blonde is light and shabby chic, but lacks the same sense of a mythology; of personality even.9

For all of this, Atomic Blonde isn’t a misfire exactly, but nor is it quite the blast you might have hoped for.

 

Shin Godzilla

4 Stars (4 / 5)
What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a metaphor for the rampant inefficiency of government bureaucracy in modern-day Japan?

Also: a giant radioactive lizard.

Movie monsters have always been a handy tool for social commentary. The original Shōwa Era Godzilla served as manifestation of Japan’s nuclear fears in the aftermath of the Second World War and the wrath of nature striking back against man’s hubris. Now, sixty-three years and thirty-two films later (including the two American reboots), the reptilian icon makes a triumphant return to Toho Studios.

Shin Godzilla has taken more than a year to make it across the ocean to us, despite winning Picture of the Year at the Japanese Oscars. Admittedly, though, it’s a difficult film to market with all honestly.

Directed chiefly by Evangelion’s Hideaki Anno, Shin Godzilla initially spends more time in civil service meeting rooms than in the company of its ostensible star. No sooner has one been adjourned than another picks up elsewhere with largely the same participants – albeit often under different, all-too-briefly-appearing titles10 – as they try to uncover the cause of the recent destruction in Tokyo Bay. When Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) dare suggest it might be some sort of creature, as suggested by the footage coming in from civilians on the scene, he’s scolded. Doesn’t he realise they’re keeping minutes?

Even when a proto-Godzilla finally slithers on toland, like some nightmarish, strangely smiley Claymation lungfish, crushing all in its path, the politicians and civil servants still seem to consider it an administrative issue; trying to determine which agency has jurisdiction over a situation that is quite literally evolving. Complex dialogue delivered out at rat-a-tat pace (Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing was reportedly a key influence) can’t mask the fact that no one seems willing to take command. Comedy, though, quickly gives way to serious drama as Godzilla gradually transforms into that of the thunder-thighed behemoth we know and love with his full arsenal at his disposal.

With its googly eyes and rubbery, magma-like hide, Mahiro Maeda’s reimagined monster may initially seem a touch goofy, but when Shiro Shagushi’s majestic, choral score rises up as Godzilla lays waste to downtown Tokyo with his atomic breath – purple lasers slicing through office blocks – as the city burns around him, it becomes genuinely unnerving. In these scenes, its moniker, retranslated here as “God incarnate”, seems terrifying apt. The sheer visual majesty provides a counterpoint to the “talkiness” of the character-based scenes and serves as a reminder that Anno’s co-director, special effects maestro Shinji Higuchi, is an impressive talent in his own right.

As in, Gareth Edward’s underappreciated 2014 version, Anno – also on scripting duties – realises that destruction is only interesting when you’re given a reason to care about what’s being destroyed. Evoking memories of the Tōhoku tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster Anno’s script makes clear that Godzilla represents a national crisis, one likely to affect Japan’s whole future; not least in the radiation spewing from its gills that threatens to render Tokyo uninhabitable.

Shin Godzilla is the story of a country coming together scientifically to find a solution as the clock counts down to zero on US nuclear intervention. While the film, on some levels, seems to admire the US for their decisiveness, in contrast to the Japanese fear of accountability, the spectre of nuclear sins past hangs heavy over the final act. Kayoko Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), an smooth-talking, multilingual Special Envoy to the US – and daughter of the American ambassador – vows, “I won’t see a third bomb dropped on the country of my grandmother, who lived through it.”

Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s declaration at last year’s Pearl Harbour memorial that Japan must never go to war again11Shin Godzilla is about crunching the data, using rationality and teamwork to find a peaceful solution to a seemingly insurmountable issue.

That’s not too monstrous a thought, is it?

  1. Thanks to Elliott Noble at Sky for that one.
  2. Think Ellen Ripley with that flamethrower in Aliens or  battle-hardened Sarah Connor doing pull-ups on her bed in Terminator 2.
  3. Toby Jones and John Goodman earn their pay checks in bringing a smidge of character to otherwise generic functionaries.
  4. He’s also – SPOILER – so obviously a villain that when the film eventually confirms this to be the case it’s sort of disarming.
  5. The film opens with the famous Reagan quote – in full, admittedly – which is about as far as the historical context goes.[note], is an understatedly retro wonderland, but, even neon-lit[note]Cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who also worked on John Wick, brings a very specific look by finding a way to cast all Broughton’s conversations beneath an interplay of blue and red light.
  6. A bit of Bowie was, of course, an inevitability, though “Cat People” was a nice pick. The now-standard haunting version of a classic pop song – in this case, 99 Red Balloons – might be pushing that trope to breaking point.
  7. Illustrated by Sam Hart.
  8. It seems initially that the death of her lover, which opens the film, might spur her on to some sort of vengeance a la Quantum of Solace, but, apart from providing a cover story to get her into Berlin, it simply inspires a single flashback.[note] Her liaison with a less experienced French agent, Delphine (Sofia Boutella, last seen in The Mummy), is at least suitably Bondian[note]A gay sex scene in the next Bond film, as Daniel Craig first suggested years ago, might offer some added justification for his now-confirmed return to the role.
  9. Broughton’s superiors claim the MacGuffin she’s sent to recover could extend the Cold War, but it’s hard to care about global stakes when the personal ones are so low.
  10. Contrast these with the kanji of the film’s title: white letters against a black background, bold and stark. How could such puny subtitles ever compete with this?
  11. And in a time where the US has arguably never been more fraught with division (or less ecologically-minded).

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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