Tag Archives: Baby Driver

Atomic Blonde (2017): Neon Action with a Convoluted Plot

Coming off the success of co-directing John Wick, stuntman-turned-director David Leitch left production on the sequel for his first solo outing, Atomic Blonde. Adapted from a graphic novel, the film is a cold war era spy story with Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) starring as Lorraine, a British MI6 agent tasked with recovering a list of undercover operatives taken from a killed MI6 agent in Berlin. The setup is familiar with both Skyfall and Mission Impossible using similar plots, but the film distinguishes itself with its unique, stylized action.

From the first frame, Leitch goes for a decidedly anarchic tone. The opening credits and intertitles are spray painted onscreen and the streets of East Berlin are riddled with graffiti and punks. His film breaks against the typical noir with its use of style and energy. Every set is bathed in a seedy neon green, red, or blue and he runs with this aesthetic even more than he did on John Wick. His commitment to this visual style provides a distinct look that is as noticeable as Lorraine’s hair color. Forget neo-noir, Leitch has styled Atomic Blonde as a neon-noir.

The sound design of the film provides a beating pulse to the action. The crack of gunshots is deafening and each strike in the frequent combat scenes creates an ear-splitting thump. Music blares constantly providing an electric or, in one case, ironic backdrop to the violence onscreen. The film uses an 80s heavy soundtrack featuring the likes of Depeche Mode, David Bowie, and even George Michael. Music is almost used as much as this year’s Baby Driver, but unlike that movie, the music never overshadows the action. In most cases, Leitch’s music choice adds a playfulness to the fighting and prevents the film’s violence from becoming too heavy.

Theron is a fearsome action star.

And Theron dishes out suffering like a professional. She isn’t the perfect action hero that glides easily through each enemy, nor is she a Jackie Chan-like fighter that stumbles through their encounters. She is tough, resourceful, and unrelentingly brutal. Leitch isn’t as proficient with hand-to-hand combat as he was with gunplay in John Wick. Some of the fight scenes lack the cohesion of better action films, but Leitch and Theron still deliver their fair share of beatdowns. The best of these takes place in apartment building used as a sniping spot by KGB agents where Leitch orchestrates a series of extended takes as Lorraine fights her way through her enemies. It doesn’t hold up to the masterful combat from The Raid and its sequel that the film is clearly mimicking but it does give us a clearer view of the merciless damage these agents inflict on each other without succumbing to the overediting of combat that plagues most action blockbusters today. Her hits land with a ferocity but we still see Lorraine falter. Several of the men are larger than her and their size gives them the upper hand. However, her fighting and her greater characterization are not just defined by her immense skill, but by her tenacity. These protracted fights become less about who is stronger, and more about who continues to come back after each blow. Theron’s defiant glares are the best indication that she has a resilience they can never hope to match.

As a cold war thriller, the plot in encased in paranoia. Lorraine’s orders are to trust no one, even her fellow MI6 agents. Several supposed allies appear, but potential betrayals are lurking around every corner and no one has a clear motive. The narrative can get lost in these turns. One too many reveals near the end start to unravel the story and character motivations leading to more confused shrugs than the shocked gasps the writers hoped for. The plot strains under these repeated twists as they undermine the plausibility of the preceding events. It makes the case for John Wick’s paper-thin revenge story. By using the simplest of setups, that film shifted the audience’s focus to its best feature, the action. Atomic Blonde’s story is its weakest element, but it can be enjoyed for its neon-drenched bloodshed and rousing soundtrack.

3/5 stars.

Baby Driver (2017)

With earbuds and a pair of not-particularly-fashionable sunglasses, the juvenile Baby (Ansel Elgort; The Fault in Our Stars) is not who you’d picture as a getaway driver. Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead) newest film is about Baby doing one last job for a local crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby has a ringing in his ears so he listens to music to drown out the noise, setting each job to a particular tune. Baby is his best driver so, naturally, when he tries to quit after falling for a local waitress, Doc threatens him until he is forced to participate.

The supporting cast are amusing exaggerations of well-worn tropes. Spacey has played this type of role before and is completely comfortable as the crime boss. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) is charismatic as an overconfident criminal that shares Baby’s love of music and Jamie Foxx (Collateral) is menacing as the loose cannon. Unlike most portrayals of a similar role, Foxx’s unpredictability comes from a place of caution. Instead of stupidly taking risks, like many would, his extreme actions are preventative measures. His violence is a way to ensure his own survival. These three add some needed flavor to the otherwise familiar setup.

The other criminals provide a harsh contrast to Baby’s relative innocence.

Wright inserts his presence into every frame and brings a boisterous energy to the film. Even scenes of a character walking are given an extra boost. His camera circles around the cast, always moving and seemingly dancing along to the music. The action scenes also have this spirit. Baby’s drifting vehicles come dangerously close to the camera as it pulls away just before being run over. There is a controlled recklessness to the car chases. As Baby slams the emergency brake to gracefully weave through a set of obstacles, it becomes clear we are in the hands of some master stunt choreography. Wright separates these scenes from a typical car chase with his, and Baby’s, playfulness. Baby’s disconnect from the dangers of getaway driving in favor of ensuring he is listening to the right song make the crashes and gunshots feel like background noise to the fun he is having. Thanks to Wright’s deliberately light tone, the action brings more smiles than tension.

This may be the longest music video mashup ever made. If you thought Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 went overboard with its soundtrack, Baby Driver will make it seem tame in comparison. The narrative conceit of Baby having tinnitus and always listening to music allows Wright to cut every scene to the song of his choice. His taste spans genres and time periods to form an eclectic collection of hummable tunes. The songs become as much of a character as Baby himself which can at times be a double-edged sword. As entertaining as it is, Wright’s near-constant use of songs can shift the attention away from the characters, making the audience more involved with the music than the plot. In fact, it’s easy to lose track of the greater motivations or narrative progressions when you’re so preoccupied with enjoying the music. The events onscreen can at times become like filler visuals with only the action scenes grabbing back your attention. By favoring its tunes over its plot, Baby Driver is a light spectacle with a varied and energetic soundtrack.

3/5 stars.