‘Atomic Blonde’ is super queer

Twenty years ago, Rupert Everett, fresh off his star making turn in My Best Friend’s Wedding, lobbied to become the star of a gay superspy franchise. It never happened despite Everett seemingly being born to play such a role. Neither Hollywood financiers nor the action film ticket-buyers were quite ready for such a character, or at least not ready enough to support a big budget tentpole film a la James Bond.

Nowadays, it’d be possible to do such a thing on Netflix or Amazon – the super-queer sci-fi action show Sense8 lasted two seasons, and something much less expensive could last longer – but it’s still hard to imagine a queer Jason Bourne being made. But a queer Lara Croft? Yes. Women who have sex with women, especially cisgender and bisexual ones, are a much easier sell for multiplexes, the audience for which is largely young and male. And the folks who gave Atomic Blonde its $30 million budget, much of it for Charlize Theron as the lead, probably had them in mind. Atomic Blonde is a landmark as a super-queer action film, but it’s also a perfectly fine action film.

Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella in Atomic Blonde

The film takes place in Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Soviet spy killed a British spy, stole the list of every clandestine agent alive, and then went rogue, looking to sell the list on the Black Market. MI6 sends Lorraine Broughton (Theron) to Berlin to help their station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) get the list, which is also being pursued by the Soviets and the French. Immediately, things go awry, and she is forced to fight her way through West and East Berlin while having a very James Bondian romance with a French agent named Delphine (Sofia Boutella) and figuring out which of her various allies is betraying her.

The plot is overly, sometimes hilariously, complex, but we’re not in the theater for spy games. We’re there to watch Charlize Theron beat people up. David Leitch, who directed John Wick, directs and choreographs fight scenes as well as any living director, and Theron and her stunt double earn their salaries pounding the bad guys into a pulp and getting their faces pummeled. (Theron chipped a number of teeth during filming). The fights and much of the dramatic action are highly stylized, with searing colors and plenty of chiaroscuro, nodding both to film noir and the film’s source material The Coldest City.

It’s strongly implied that the British agent killed in the film’s first scene was once Lorraine’s lover, but the film’s only sex scenes are between Lorraine and Delphine. And their relationship is the only one in the film that has any kind of emotional resonance. With everyone else, Lorraine lies, manipulates, interrogates and demands; with Delphine, it is said, she tells the truth. Lorraine’s only authentic connection is with a woman, and for a film with Atomic Blonde’s visibility and genre, that’s a radical thing. And the publicity campaign doesn’t shy from this, giving Lorraine and Delphine’s sex scene prominent placement in the widely watched trailer.

Unfortunately, Atomic Blonde relies on a few deeply un-radical tropes of queer films, particularly those about women. And the script for the film doesn’t utilize the film’s extraordinary cast well enough. Theron is as gorgeous and charismatic as ever, but Lorraine needed a more variable affect and maybe a believable back story. McAvoy’s Percival is a fun, ribald and amoral agent, but he’s never given any motivation to explain his behavior. Similarly, both John Goodman and Toby Jones have rather thankless roles.

Each character propels the plot, but they provide us with no reason to care much about the list, the Berlin Wall or who will win in the end. An action film lacking depth of meaning and emotion isn’t all that surprising, and I had a great time nonetheless. I do hope there will be a sequel. I want to learn more about Lorraine, and I want to watch her kick a lot of ass and then get the girl in the end.

Atomic Blonde
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Kurt Johnstad
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and Sofia Boutella
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Captain America vs. the NSA

Captain 2

I am a member of the strong minority that believes that Captain America: The First Avenger is the best of the recent crop of Marvel movies. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is great fun, but the Captain America story is much more emotionally rich. During World War II, an incredibly scrawny, sickly Steve Rogers tries over and over again to enlist in army, but he’s repeatedly rejected. Finally, his verve and bravery catch the eye of the right general, and he’s injected with a serum, bombarded with a lot of electricity, and he grows a foot and some absurd muscles. He becomes Captain America and leads a special team of heroes and spies to fight the Nazis and an evil offshoot called HYDRA. During a major battle, the Captain is in a plane that crashes into the Arctic Ocean. He is thought dead for 70 years, but then his body is found in a block of ice and – because it’s a comic book world – thawed and brought back to life.

The sequel, the fun and surprisingly political thrill-ride Captain America: The Winter Soldier, takes place in the present day. Now, the Captain (Chris Evans, a fine, if not terribly exciting, square jawed hero) is a member of the superhero team the Avengers and he works for SHIELD, the Marvel Universe’s combo of the CIA, NSA, and every New World Order black helicopter fantasy. Unlike his extremely cynical boss Nick Fury (the increasingly creaky Samuel L. Jackson), the Captain still embodies the World War II morality, in which the ends justifies the means, but only if the end is “freedom.” He’s appalled that SHIELD will be creating a massive flying machines to take out threats before they fulfill their nefarious goals. Fury counters, saying, “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!” The Captain: “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”

The Captain, of course, is both right and prescient, because Fury doesn’t realize that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, whose goal is not to just take out plotting terrorists but anyone in the world who is capable of disrupting the perfect orderly world they want to create. Using three airborne aircraft carriers – think boxier versions of Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars – they plans to slaughter 20 million potential. Led by the dastardly Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, doing evil just fine), HYDRA first must get rid of Fury, the Captain, his new sidekick the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Black Widow, better down as Agent Romanov (Scarlett Johansson, having the time of her life). HYDRA’s greatest asset is a mysterious superhuman assassin known as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan); he has big guns, a mechanical arm, no fear, and a shocking secret identity.

The requisite fight scenes are surprisingly well choreographed and thrilling, especially since the directors, Joe and Anthony Rosso, have never directed anything but sitcoms. I loved the Captain’s physically impossible acrobatic slugfests with the Winter Soldier, and Agent Romanov kicks a great deal of ass while becoming late-night fantasy fodder for a lot of straight fanboys and lesbian fangirls. The Russos also do a laudable job with the extensive CGI, which is as clear as Whedon’s and James Cameron’s and thankfully not in 3D.

This is the first Marvel film since X-Men United (2003) that makes a political point, and it’s first ever to make that point explicitly. The second X-Men compared the plight of mutants with that of real-world gays and lesbians, though only metaphorically. The Winter Solider, however, is an explicit attack on the American government’s security overreach, tapping phones, tracking Internet usage, and watching everyone on video. The argument is the Captain’s: This is not the freedom we fought for. There’s a certain irony here, of course, since like all of the big movie studios, Disney, which owns Marvel, is part of the problem, pushing for more restrictive copyright laws that will be used to throttle the free flow of information and to track anonymous file sharers they claim are eating at Disney’s enormous profits. That said, I was impressed that Marvel made a superhero film that is also an old-style spy thriller, complete with a critique of the methods of war. Well, some of the methods. Killing is pretty much okay, and the body count in The Winter Soldier is so high as to be uncountable.

Captain America: The Winter Solider
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 for tons of violence

Bourne Again

Yeah, so that headline is probably going to be used in a few hundred reviews today. So be it. Using a cliche for the review is apropos.

The three previous Bourne movies were big deals, popular among both average and uppity filmgoers, because they were actually thrilling spy thrillers made with virtually no special effects, directed by the auteurs Doug Limon (The Bourne Identity) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum), and all written tautly by Tony Gilroy with moral ambiguity and character development. And they starred not just Matt Damon, one of the great actors of his generation, but also a host of brilliant others, from Joan Allen to Albert Finney, from Chris Cooper to David Straithairn. If it weren’t for the success of The Bourne Identity, the gritty reboot of James Bond with Daniel Craig would never have happened the way it did. So, after Damon and Greengrass decided they were done, whoever was chosen to reboot the franchise faced two difficult tasks: Make a movie as good as any in the previous trilogy. Don’t make a movie that feels like a cynical exploitation of goodwill earned by the previous trilogy.

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