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Face-Off: Atomic Blonde vs. Red Sparrow

Nice to see you again, fans of the cinema! This is the Face-Off, where two movies enter and both movies leave, but one leaves in a slightly better light. Yes, here we take two competitors and compare their key elements and see who comes out the champion. It's a fierce competition that results in blood, tears, and online arguments, but the more brutal the battle, the sweeter the victory.

This weekend we will see Jennifer Garner return to ass-kicking mode in the action flick PEPPERMINT, so we will be using this session to take a look back at two modern spy thrillers starring two incredible, capable and deadly leading ladies: It's ATOMIC BLONDE vs. RED SPARROW.

The first came out last year with many comparing it to the JOHN WICK series, in that director David Leitch co-directed the first WICK and brought many of those same flourishes for style and action to this slick action flick. Charlie Theron leads the film and kicks ass doing it, turning herself into a full-fledged action star in the process. Next, we have 2018's RED SPARROW, which does not have the action qualities of PEPPERMINT or ATOMIC but replaces them with a brutal, graphic tone that shows a whole new side of the spy world, for better or worse. Jennifer Lawrence leads the film with total commitment and a Russian accent, but we won't be talking about the latter too much (although we really should be).

Which R-rated flick brings the best mix of suspense and thrills? Which leading lady owns their role the best? Take a scroll down and let's get this mission underway.

THE ENSEMBLE
Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton
James McAvoy as David Percival
Eddie Marsan as Spyglass
Toby Jones as Eric Gray
John Goodman as Emmett Kurzfeld
Sofia Boutella as Delphine Lasalle
Bill Skarsgard as Merkel
Rolland Moller as Aleksander Bremovych
James Faulkner as Chief 'C'
Jennifer Lawrence as Dominkia Egorova
Joel Edgerton as Nate Nash
Matthias Schoenaerts as Vanya Egorov
Charlotte Rampling as Matron
Mary-Louise Parker as Stephanie Boucher
Ciaran Hinds as Zakharov
Bill Camp as Marty
Thekla Reuten as Marta
and Jeremy Irons as General Korchnoi
DIRECTION
After working for years as a stuntman David Leitch broke into directing as a co-director of JOHN WICK, then going his own way for ATOMIC BLONDE. All that time learning the ins and outs of the action movie industry and working on WICK gave him all the tools he needed to craft a movie like BLONDE, and when it comes to the set pieces and fight scenes he doesn't disappoint. The stairwell sequence best encompasses his bold, brutal style, having Theron's Lorraine Broughton fighting down a flight of stairs, into an apartment, getting bloodier and bloodier the further she descends, with it all crescendoing with an epic car crash. It's one of the most impressively-staged action scenes in recent memory, with a massive shoutout going to editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, who makes it all look like one continuous shot. When the fists aren't flying Leitch creates an atmosphere akin to scenes in WICK, establishing a neon-drenched/pop-punk style that brings the graphic novel it was based on (THE COLDEST CITY) to life. Achieving all this with a solo directing debut takes incredible faith not just in your cast and crew, but yourself as well, even if stylistically it does come off as a bit similar to WICK. Letich really found his groove in with DEADPOOL 2, which further solidified him as one of the top action directors today.
Between movies like CONSTANTINE, I AM LEGEND and the final three HUNGER GAMES movies Francis Lawrence has had some incredible success in the blockbuster filmmaking arena. With RED SPARROW he aims for something totally different and much, much, much heavier. In terms of capturing the tone of SPARROW, he succeeds with what is his best work yet. This is a serious, grim, heavy-handed movie, and Lawrence leans into the dirty details, whether they involve sex, torture, violence or even super serious, closed-door conversations. Like Leitch's work in BLONDE, this is a bold move from the director, making the material even more unsettling by ensuring the movie is always cold and unforgiving, much like the Russian landscape. Also like his competition, the movie he made required a tremendous amount of confidence in his cast, pushing them to do things they have never done before, especially Jennifer Lawrence, who he has go all out and strip down (literally) for the role. Alongside the brutality, Lawrence finds some chilling beauty in the scenery, working with cinematographer Jo Willems to stage some elegant, gorgeous bleak shots. The story itself (we will get into that next) doesn't offer up the levels of suspense to make this atmosphere as enticing as it should be, but Lawrence's work is impressive and daring, doing everything he can to set it apart in the genre.
SCRIPT
The movie is based on the graphic novel "The Coldest City," and Kurt Johnstad has a history of adapting other notable graphic novels, namely the two 300 movies. The script follows the typical pacing and plot points of your typical espionage thriller, filled with government officials, seducings, betrayals, etc. Our leading heroine is sent to Berlin in 1989, days before the Wall is about to be torn down, so as to retrieve a list of MI6 and KGB agents' identities. What is meant to give her a greater emotional arc is that she was romantically involved with the man who had the list stolen from his dead body. The script does a fine job making Broughton the most interesting character, giving her a purpose and a reason to have such a chip on her shoulder, which blends nicely with her cool, devil-may-care charm. The story itself is nothing to all that unique, and you can see the ending coming a mile away with Percival being found out as the main baddie, but it's simple enough to where it could be properly fleshed-out with engaging characters and enough style to make it stand on its two feet.
Okay, people were probably hoping this would be some sort of taut, action-packed spy flick (like BLONDE), but the script from Justin Haythe is having NONE of that. This movie, running at an unacceptable 140 minutes, is, on the story front, a total snore. The writing fails to create interesting or logical characters, especially Lawrence's, who morphs from ballerina to super sleuth after no time. Her evolution is almost non-existent, as the innocent ballerina side of her is hardly established before she goes full nude for the spy game. She's just always a cold, near-emotionless being who becomes hard to root for, mainly because there are no stakes for her to face. We know she's doing this all for her mother, but we see so little of them together or feel there's any threat to their relationship that it seems like Dominika is going through with everything for the hell of it. Then there's the presence of the CIA and Edgerton's character, an angle, though not pointless, is incredibly uninteresting. No one is doing anything exciting nor is there a clear goal to be achieved, so that when everything is wrapped up in the end, it seems all done at random and with little shock. Lawrence (both Francis and Jennifer) do what they can to elevate the material, but the script doesn't make it easy.
THE LEADING LADY
Charlize Theron has thrown herself into action movies before (THE ITALIAN JOB, AEON FLUX, HANCOCK) but she solidified herself in the genre after 2015's MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, in which she turned in one of the best action movie performances ever. She got to have the spotlight to herself in BLONDE, and she stepped up to the challenge of turning herself into a badass super spy. On top of giving her character a tough exterior and soft interior, she's effortlessly cool and embraces the action scenes like a fucking champ. Sure she probably had a stunt double, but you wouldn't think it watching her bash men with her shoe or boot them down a flight of steps. She pulls a full Tom Cruise by doing her own stunts, and the movie is that much better for it. On top of that, she's stylish, confident and oh so suave, giving guys like James Bond a run for their money.
Lawrence deserves a lot of props for doing what she did in this movie from a physical standpoint. She put herself out there in a bold way, and in a mainstream movie meant to make tons of cash, no doubt. It's brave work and shows how far she will go for a project she believes in. It's just too bad she doesn't have an interesting character to work with. A weak script means Dominika is charmless, depthless and seems perpetually cold and unforgiving. It would have been fascinating to see her go from innocent to this level of darkness, but the script doesn't leave a lot of room for her to evolve that way and is very quickly placed in that grim mold. As I said above, she does what she can, but any talented actor can only do so much with a thin script.
NOTABLE BITS & LINES

A Snowy Berlin Morning

Ice Bath

Meet David Percival

An Awkward Car Ride

Percival: “Don’t shoot, I’ve got your shoe.”

Skateboard Beatdown

Apartment Showdown

Percival: “My god, I think I fucking love you.”

Lorraine: “That’s too bad.”

Brawl Behind the Screen

International Relations

Gray: “So you made contact with the French operative?”

Broughton: “Obviously.”

Stairway Fight!...

...That Leads Into the Streets!

Lorraine: "Am I a bitch now?"

Delphine Killed

Percival: "I fucking love Berlin!"

Percival Gets His

One Last Job

The Leg Snap!

Sweet, Bloody Revenge

The First Job

Matron: "The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces."

Sparrow Training

Matron: "Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece, and they will tell you anything."

Shower Attack

Going All Out

Dominika: "You sent me to whore school!"

Nate and Dominika Meet

Finding Marta in the Tub

Nate and Dominika on the Couch

Torture

The Even Nastier Torture of Nate

Her Plan Revealed

Vanya: "You killed me."

Dominika: "Didn't I do well, Uncle?"

STYLE/APPROACH
A stylistic companion piece to the JOHN WICK movies, BLONDE is filled with bright colors that canvas a bleak, dark setting. BLONDE takes things a step further by giving it some '80s flair, mixing in the cooler clothing styles (if such a thing existed in the '80s) and the popular music of the day. Then there's the much-talked-about action, which is sleek, brutal and a joy to watch. Going through all of it is Theron as the cool as hell Lorraine Broughton, a spy as smooth as Bond and quick as Jason Bourne.
While other spy thrillers are favoring action and smooth style, SPARROW aims for something more menacing and exacting, which reflects the spy world as it probably is. The approach is admirable and a welcome, if not incredibly unsettling, in the canon of modern spy movies. The violence is unrelenting and vicious, the sex is unrestrained and if you want a tone that matched the harsh cold of Russia, then boy do this movie have it. It's as if the cameras were fueled with vodka and the only food on set was borscht and bear trimmings.
PRAISE & MONEY

Praise

Money:
    $51 million domestic ($100 million global)

Praise

Money:
    $46 million domestic ($150 million global)
MUSICAL MASTERY
As I've mentioned in Face-Offs of the past I love to give props to the filmmakers when a soundtrack filled with pop hits (Guardians of the Galaxy, Baby Driver) is used brilliantly. The songs can connect us to the movie in ways we never heard them before, letting them take on a new life. ATOMIC BLONDE does this with '80s pop classics from David Bowie, Flock of Seagulls, The Clash and more. However, as for an original score (which is usually base this category on), there's not a ton to go on. Tyler Bates contributed to the score, but it's hard to pick out his influence among the more notable songs. Still, gotta love grooving to music that dominated the heyday of MTV while Theron is bashing in a dude's face.
James Newton Howard's work here is ominous and graceful, as he clearly took inspiration from the sorts of orchestrations you'd hear during a ballet. I have never heard any of these played live, as I would be shooed away from the door like a homeless, but hey, you can find anything to listen to on Spotify. The score is at it's best when Howard takes a sharp turn into the terrifying, like when Lawrence exacts her revenge on the lovers who set her up, or when she finds her flatmate dead in the bathtub. The high-pitched, string-led compositions are unsettling and send tingles up for your spine, which is the right way to make someone feel when they see a bloody corpse in the tub. Way to nail it, Howard.
SEX, BLOOD & THRILLS
There's a lot to love in BLONDE when it comes to the R-rated nature of it. There's some solid gore during the violent bits and a scene between Theron and Boutella that is, just, the absolute best. Thanks to an unrestricted rating the movie is a notable entry in the canon of modern, stylistic action flicks, with numerous scenes to marvel at for one reason or another. Watch the action scenes on a loop to study their brilliance, and watch the sex scene on a loop, because, well...
RED SPARROW tops BLONDE in the blood and sex department, even if it is sorely lacking in the thrills. Like, painfully lacking. But seriously, this movie is gory and violent as fuck, from the shocking leg snap at the beginning, Lawrence beating down those who planned it with a cane, and progressing to torture scenes that will make your skin crawl. This movie holds zero punches, with sex being a key component as well, and scenes ranging from uncomfortable (the rape to the training parts) to pretty sexy (Lawrence and Edgerton). There's a lot to watch and squirm over, if you can stay awake the full runtime, that is.
ATOMIC BLONDE
RED SPARROW is an admirable movie in parts, mostly for Francis Lawrence's bold direction, the sometimes gruesome tone and content, and Jennifer Lawrence's performance. Otherwise, it's a movie that's far too long, has a thin script with almost equally thin characters and a story that makes me scream at the screen. ATOMIC BLONDE, on the other hand, lives up to its title by being a slick, stylish spy flick with some impeccable action scenes and terrific work from Charlize Theron. The story and plotting may leave room for improvement, but that's easy to look over when Theron is kicking dudes down some stairs and having what I can imagine was a very lovely evening with Sofia Boutella.

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