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ATOMIC BLONDE Script Analysis: Guns are No Fun
This week we are going to be talking about Atomic Blonde by Kurt Johnstad.
I would like to start this script analysis by talking about the way that I saw Atomic Blonde, because this was actually my first experience with 4DX.
I went to a 9:15 screening and I am wondering, “Why am I spending $28 on this screening?” But it was the only screening that I could make.
I show up, and I have no idea what to expect, and it’s not until I sit down that I realize the seats are on a platform that moves.
There are fans and lightning effects, and when it rains in the movie, it sprays water on you. There are little air bursts that hit you every time a gun goes off, and the seat will shake you or kick you in the back when a fight scene is happening.
And basically, this is the worst and most distracting way that I have ever seen a film.
Rather than sucking you into the film, it actually shakes you out of the film. It reminds you that you are seeing a movie– that you aren’t experiencing something real.
And I am not telling you this to complain about 4DX, even though I think 4DX is a total nightmare…
I am telling you this because oftentimes, as screenwriters, we make the mistake of inadvertently doing 4DX in our own screenplays.
Rather than simply telling the story that we want to tell, simply pulling our audiences into our story in an organic way, we get so obsessed with all the bells and whistles that we end up distracting our audience from what makes our screenplay powerful.
We get so obsessed with all the things that that are supposed to make it a “commercial” experience that instead of pulling our audience into the movie, instead of augmenting their experience, all those bells and whistles end up distracting from their experience, taking them out of the movie, shaking them out of the reality of the film.
If you’ve taken my screenwriting classes you have heard me talk at length about the idea of screenplay formatting as a way of hypnotizing the reader.
Ultimately what we are trying to do is to use formatting to capture the visual eye of the reader– whether they are creative or not– to allow our movies to play in the little movie screen of their mind.
And bad screenplay formatting happens when we fail to do that– when we either require the reader to supply their own creativity to make our screenplay cool or when we start shaking them with improper rhythm or with overly technical scene headings or with things that they can’t see or with dense action or with images that aren’t specific, that don’t play out exactly the way that we see them in the movie screen in our mind.
Sometimes our action, the way we put it on the screen, the way we write our dialogue can be like those annoying jets of water and those annoying sprays of air and the shaking of the seats: they can shake us out of this world that we want to experience.
So we have spoken at length about the idea of how sometimes our formatting can become our 4DX, can become that thing that is supposed to augment but instead shakes us out of the experience of the movie.
What we haven’t talked about as much is the way that sometimes our ambition — our impulse to complicate what could be a beautiful and simple experience– can shake our audience out of what should be a really great story. And for me this is very much the experience of Atomic Blonde.
Atomic Blonde wants to be a Quentin Tarantino movie. And there is no doubt that to the extent Atomic Blonde succeeds, it succeeds because of its extraordinary fight sequences.
Whatever the flaws of the film– and there are many– those fight sequences are really impressive on a number of different levels.
The first is that this writer is deeply aware that guns are no fun.
Often what happens in action movies is the bad guys can’t shoot and the good guys can. Often what happens in action movies is that the good guys are total badass characters and the best fighters and have the best skills and are total superheros and the bad guys are a bunch of idiots who can’t really do anything well.
Atomic Blonde succeeds in the same way that Iron Man succeeds. Atomic Blonde and Iron Man both succeed because they realize that guns are no fun just like Iron Man suits are no fun.
If Iron Man is going to work, you’ve got to get him out of the suit. And if Atomic Blonde is going to work, you’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of both the good guys and the bad guys. Because the guns are just too darn easy to use– too darn easy to kill with– if they’re used properly.
Exciting action sequences don’t come from having the all-powerful weapon– but from having the challenging weapon; having the knife, having the high heel, having the hand to hand combat, having the object that isn’t meant to be fought with.
So if you want to write a great action sequence, just like Atomic Blonde, you’ve got to make the most of every location and every object inside that location.
Look at the location of your scene and ask yourself; what are all the objects that are available to you? What are all the objects that have never before been used in a fight sequence? And how can you use those objects in the wrong way? How can you surprise the expectations of the characters?
How can you force the character to show who they are, to show their own ingenuity, to show their own badass-ness?
You almost need to think of each of these challenging locations like a video game set–where each location comes with its own unique challenges, own unique pitfalls, many, many exciting ways to die– and where everything is either an aid or an obstacle to the character getting what they want. Where every object gets used in the wrong way in order to create the most exciting action sequences possible.
So, despite its many flaws, there is a lot that we can learn from Atomic Blonde when it comes to writing action, when it comes to the specificity of our action, and when it comes to this very important concept:
Don’t let your action be about good guys kicking bad guy ass, get the guns out of their hands, get them out of the all-powerful suits. Don’t make your action about good guys who can shoot and bad guys who can’t, make it about good guys and bad guys who are both really good at their jobs, who are equally matched and who are both fighting with everything they’ve got. Make it about using the wrong weapons in the wrong way, not the right weapons in the right one.
The other thing that Atomic Blonde does really well in its action sequences is that Atomic Blonde allows the fighting to hurt.
We realize this is going to happen from the first time that we see Charlize Theron’s character, Lorraine Broughton. The first time we meet her, she is literally covered from head to toe in black and blue marks.
We have a beautiful image of Charlize Theron naked, bruise covered, in her bathtub.
And like all the images in Atomic Blonde, this image is gorgeous; the direction by David Leitch from a visual perspective is absolutely gorgeous.
(The direction from a character perspective I have some concerns about. But the direction from making every shot beautiful– just the way you want to make every shot beautiful in your script– is quite impressive).
So we have this first image of Charlize Theron naked in a bathtub. She is literally black and blue from head to toe. She looks like she has just been in the fight of a lifetime.
And this is not the way we usually get to see our action heroes. We don’t usually get to see the aftermath.
And that’s how this first image establishes a rule for how these fight sequences are going to work. It establishes a rule that the punches are going to hurt, the battles are going to hurt. This isn’t going to be The A Team; this isn’t going to be a battle or a fight sequence without consequence.
We are going to allow the punches to land.
One of the best fight sequences in Atomic Blonde happens between Charlize Theron and baddy bad looking bad guy German Stasi agent that she squares off with. There is a point during the fight where both of them are so tired from beating each other that they can barely stand– when they are basically stumbling towards each other, trying desperately to find the will to walk much less to actually fight.
And this is something we haven’t seen a lot of in action movies, those fight sequences that actually hurt. Those fight sequences with consequence.
So, on this level, Atomic Blonde is unusually successful.
And yet, the experience of watching Atomic Blonde is emotionally kind of soulless. The experience of watching Atomic Blonde leaves you feeling really flat.
And you can feel this isn’t what the writer is trying to do.
What it feels like the writer and what it feels like the director is trying to do and (if you’ve seen the trailer which is spectacular) what the trailer is trying to do, is to try to create that kind of Quentin Tarantino action movie feeling– that kind of tongue in cheek super badass turn up the volume almost expressionistic take on action where it is a total joyride and a total romp watching the extreme violence.
But that isn’t the experience that we have watching this film.
We don’t have the Quentin Tarantino fun. In fact, at least from my perspective, this movie wasn’t much fun at all.
And part of that is because, despite the wonderful staging and the beautiful imagery of these action sequences, Atomic Blonde is taking itself very, very seriously.
The film is taking itself so seriously– it is so overly beautiful, and it is so overly complicated– that it is hard to just enjoy the romp.
Atomic Blonde is trying to make a movie about deceiving the deceiver. And the writer Kurt Johnstad goes to really great lengths to try to lay in that theme, even going as far as quoting Machiavelli.
The concept of a world where everyone betrays everyone is potentially a lot of fun. But in Atomic Blonde, from a tonal perspective, it doesn’t actually play out in a fun way; it plays out in a very serious way.
And what leads to that seriousness is the complication. And that complication exists for a couple of different reasons.
The first is that the plot is so convoluted that it is hard to understand what the characters are actually trying to do. And this is something that happens all the time when you are trying too hard to set up a trick ending.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love trick endings. But as I have talked about in several recent podcasts (including my Alien Covenant Podcast), when the trick ending becomes the whole point, it can end up causing a lot of problems.
Atomic Blonde for me is one of the films in recent memory that most suffers from the trick ending problem.
The writer is trying to set up the trick ending (which I am not going to give to you here, but which quite frankly you know is coming from the moment you hear “deceive the deceiver” and realize you are in a spy movie and you don’t know the identity of the person Charlize Theron is chasing).
But in the process of setting up this totally predictable trick ending, the Atomic Blonde twists itself into so many knots that it fails to deliver on its own premise.
So why does this happen?
It happens for a couple of reasons; number one they are trying to hold off on this trick ending so they aren’t giving you all the information. So that creates a certain amount of complication– where they need lots of different layers to make sure that you are confused, so that you won’t predict the thing that you’ve already predicted.
So that is number one.
Number two, they are spending a lot of time setting up a complicated relationship between Charlize Theron’s and John Goodman’s characters. And of course that relationship ends up having a little trick to it that you also see coming as well from the very beginning.
So the movie spends a tremendous amount of time setting up that complication.
In fact the movie is framed almost exactly like True Detective in that we have an interview taking place in the present and we have a story taking place in the past, and there is a difference between the Charlize Theron of the present and the Charlize Theron of the past and there is a complicated relationship between her and the people interrogating her that we aren’t exactly sure about.
This is the structure of True Detective. And the writers are trying to do a True Detective with a Quentin Tarantino mash up, with a little bit of The Usual Suspects on the side.
And this is the place that so many writers start, it is this meets this, it is this meets that. And unfortunately when you start that way you often end up with very disconnected writing.
Now, I haven’t read the graphic novel that this is based on and there is certainly a potential that I have missed—it is possible that this was developed from a graphic novel that had the same set up.
So, I am not trying to say that Atomic Blonde is necessarily derivative; but what I am saying is that if, as a writer, you start from a derivative place, if you start as a writer going, “It is this meets this,” or “it is this meets that,” what you miss out on is the real connection in you that’s going to make the story exciting.
What piece of you are you trying to explore in this character?
And the truth is Charlize Theron’s character should be a really interesting one. She is a spy who may be falling in love with another woman or may be using her. She has secrets for sure. She is tough as hell. She is a person who rarely tells the truth but has a tell when she does. She is a nice complicated character and the character should be fun to follow.
And ultimately her journey is trying to tie to a theme about Machiavellianism; it is trying to tie to a theme about the joy of deceiving a deceiver.
And so the film is trying to find joy in deceiving the audience. But the film fails to recognize, “What is it really about in the writer? What is it really about in Charlize Theron’s character?”
There is a potential in Atomic Blonde for a really beautiful journey, there is a potential here to allow Charlize Theron’s character Lorraine to potentially fall in love with Sofia Boutella’s character Delphine Lasalle.
There is an opportunity to develop a real love story; there is an opportunity to develop the Charlize Theron character to a place where she has to make a choice between love and deception– to develop the character to a place where she has to learn what it is to tell the truth, or choose to fail to tell the truth, and suffer from telling the truth or failing to do so.
There is a potential complicated relationship with the John Goodman character.
Goodman probably is the most underused piece of this whole puzzle, in that John Goodman is one of the most talented comedic actors living, and is cast in a role that doesn’t really mean anything or really do anything.
All the work is spent setting up the trick ending for the audience, in a character that we aren’t really invested in at all. Is he just a CIA badass, or is he a real person?
So there is a potential to allow a relationship to develop between Charlize Theron and John Goodman. To actually develop the relationship, rather than just using these two characters to deliver plot. Rather than just using the emotional relationship just to deliver plot.
What happens in Atomic Blonde is that Charlize Theron’s character doesn’t actually change.
She goes through this whole movie and basically remains exactly who she is. She doesn’t develop any real relationships with anybody, and the one that might be real isn’t allowed enough room to breathe inside of all the action for us to actually believe it is real, for us to believe it is anything other than manipulation.
So, you have a character who doesn’t care about anybody, who is manipulating everybody, who is playing a game with everybody and of course there is a little bit of The Usual Suspects in that she is playing a game with the audience and with the people she is reporting to as well.
So, rather than the writer looking inside themselves and asking, “What is the betrayal in me? What is the pain in me about? What is my need to lie? What is my need to deceive? What is that about in me? What is that about in this character? What is the joy of deception for this character? How do I tempt her out of the joy of deception and then bring her back to deception? How do I take a person who tells the truth and turn them into a deceiver? Or take a deceiver and turn her into a character who tells the truth? How do I take her on a journey?”
What happens instead is the character doesn’t go on a journey at all; in fact none of the characters get to go on a journey. Charlize Theron doesn’t grow as a character, she doesn’t build relationships, and she doesn’t change.
She starts off in a relationship working with a spy she doesn’t trust– David Percival played by James McAvoy– and at the end she doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her. They start and they don’t trust each other, and they end and they don’t trust each other.
She goes through an awesome sequence trying to get Spyglass, played by Eddie Marsan, out of East Germany, but she doesn’t develop a real relationship with him.
So, even the success or the failure of that mission is only about her own ego as a spy. It isn’t about a relationship that develops between them, it doesn’t have any real emotional meaning.
Her relationship with Sofia Boutella is probably the closest to a real relationship. But that relationship is also convoluted.
Her relationship with John Goodman turns out to be more complicated than we expected, but the actual relationship doesn’t develop in front of our eyes, we don’t get to see him as a character, we don’t understand what he means.
So there is no one that matters to her, there is no one that she isn’t willing to betray. And what that means is that her betrayal means nothing.
The audience goes on a journey in relation to all the very complicated things that we are going to try to figure out. But we aren’t actually engaged in figuring them out, we don’t actually care.
We care about the action sequences, because they are super fun, but we don’t care for the character. We aren’t rooting for her because we don’t even know what she is doing.
And we aren’t really that surprised when we find out who she is, because not only did we see it coming, but also, we were never invested in any other belief about who she might have been. Because she hasn’t had to change or lose or choose in order to become who she is. She has simply stayed static just like every other character in the piece.
And I want to contrast this with other movies that are built in this way. The other movies upon which its structure is actually built.
Let’s look at True Detective.
In True Detective, what we are watching is Matthew McConaughey go a huge journey of change.
We are watching Matthew McConaughey, before our eyes, lose his belief in people, lose his belief in himself.
We are watching the pressure between him and the Woody Harrelson character– we are watching it develop, and we are watching the toll that trying to solve this crime takes on these two men.
The real structure of True Detective is not solving the case; it is never solving the case.
The real structure of True Detective is the relationship between two very different men who come to care about each other.
If we look at The Usual Suspects—
Despite its tremendous trick ending The Usual Suspects isn’t just about tricking the audience. If you take the trick ending out, you still have a movie that is worth watching.
You have the story of a main character who keeps trying to get out, but keeps getting pulled back in! You have the better version of The Godfather III.
And even the character of Keyser Söze– the character of Verbal played by Kevin Spacey– he goes on a journey as well.
He goes on a journey, even though it is a pretend one, where he has to mourn the loss of a fake friendship, where he has to realize that the man he thought was his friend may have manipulated him all along.
“Why me? I’m weak; I’m a cripple” he says to Detective Kujan after “realizing” his friend has betrayed him. “Because you are weak, because you are a cripple.” Kujan responds. And Verbal cries.
So, you have the journey of a guy trying to get out, who keeps getting pulled back in; you’ve got choices that drive him back to where he doesn’t want to go.
You have the story of Verbal going on a journey to learn that his friend isn’t really his friend.
You have the story of Detective Kujan who goes on a journey of thinking that he is the man in control, and realizing he has been outwitted.
The structureof The Usual Suspects doesn’t just exist for the audience; it doesn’t just exist in complications. The story of that movie exists for the characters. It is built around the characters’ change in relation to the theme of betrayal.
If we look at the structure of Kill Bill—
Kill Bill is a movie about revenge, and we care about Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill because we care about her desire for revenge.
We understand what she wants because we’ve felt that want ourselves, because it grows organically out of real, human feelings in Quentin Tarantino. Feelings we can relate to, whether or not we agree with her actions.
In fact if you look at Tarantino’s oeuvre, nearly everything he has written is about revenge, and the joy of revenge– whereas Atomic Blond — if it does come from inside of Kurt Johnstad- then it has been twisted around these commercial goals to such an extent, that the piece of him that started it no longer seems present. The human side has been lost.
Even a much more complicated film like Chinatown…
If you’ve watched Chinatown you probably still don’t know what the hell happened to Chinatown. So we can all agree it’s a pretty complicated movie.
But here is what you do know: you do know that Jack Nicholson at the very beginning of the movie– you do know that Jack Nicholson is a guy who doesn’t want to get involved.
He is a guy who doesn’t want to get involved and he is a guy who believes people shouldn’t get involved. He doesn’t want to go back to Chinatown. In fact in the very first scene he tells a potential client, “Look, do you love your wife? In that case, trust me, you don’t want to know.”
And then what happens is, Jack Nicholson gets caught with his pants down, and suddenly he is in the position of the client and he ignores his own advice—he wants to know.
He wants to know what is going on with Faye Dunaway. He wants to know what is going on with water in California. He gets sucked into trusting someone and then mistrusting her. A relationship develops with Jack and Faye Dunaway– someone that he cares about, that he comes to believe isn’t who he thinks she is.
It’s that relationship that pulls us through all the film’s myriad complications– that relationship that drives him back to the one place that he was never going to go—Chinatown. Back to the position of not being able to protect someone that he loves, back to the position of knowing how much mankind doesn’t care about each other.
So all these movies have one thing in common which is– whether the plot is incredibly convoluted like Chinatown or The Usual Suspects, or incredibly simple like True Detective or Kill Bill— these movies aren’t about the crime, these movies aren’t about the complications.
These movies are about the character journeys, the character relationships.
If you want to write a great script, if you want to build a film that people are going to care about, it can never just be about the plot complications. It can’t just be a game of chess.
Because no matter how beautifully executed, we are going to feel that something is missing.
It can’t just be about the journey you take the audience on, it has to be about the journey you take yourself on, and you take your character on.
Because here is the truth: most of us will never be spies. Most of us will never chase a list of double agents. In fact, most of us probably don’t even believe that such a list actually exists, so probably most of us don’t even fully accept the premise of Atomic Blonde. Most of us will never have to betray the betrayer or deceive the deceiver in a complicated spy fiction story.
But every single one of us has relationships.
And it is those relationships, those “hot relationships” that make us care about characters.
And, yes, there are other things that can make a movie compelling. Like beautiful images and great fight sequences.
But it is those relationships that suck us into the movie and hypnotize us and make us cry for characters that we know don’t exist.
It is those relationships that make us root for characters that we know don’t exist. Make our hearts pound for characters that we know don’t exist—it is those human elements that make these characters feel real.
And, for all the value wrung out of each location in the action sequences, the film also fails to fully capture the value of its location in time.
Because despite the fact that it is set in the 80’s, it has none of the 80’s throwback fun that we would expect in a film like this, and that the trailer promises us…
And throwback 80’s fun doesn’t have to mean that it is a silly movie.
If you have watched Stranger Things you know that you can have 80’s fun in a really dark context.
But in this film, we don’t get the feeling of the 80’s, we don’t get the feeling of a spy thriller that matters, we don’t get a feeling about the politics. In fact the very first thing that the movie says is about the Berlin Wall falling… but that this isn’t that story.
What we get is attitude, but we don’t get character. What we get is attitude, but we don’t get emotion. What we get is craft but what we don’t get is the story. What we get is plot but we don’t get the structure.
So what can you take from Atomic Blonde?
You can take a couple things. Atomic Blonde succeeds because of great moment to moment craft; it succeeds because of brilliantly crafted action scenes, and it succeeds because of brilliantly shot scenes, and it succeeds because of brilliant actors.
But Atomic Blonde suffers from convoluted structure. It suffers from trying to mash up other ideas, trying to mash up elements like let’s take the 80’s, the Cold War, spy thriller, Quentin Tarantino, True Detective, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, let’s mix them all together, all these elements and create a plot for the audience.
Rather than saying, “let’s take a character that we care about and put her in a world that we care about, let’s take her on a journey that is going to change her forever inside of a world that matters to her. Let’s explore the theme not as something the characters talk about but as something that shapes their journeys structurally. Not a journey just of the audience but of the character themselves.”
In every movie there are two levels of structure: there is primary structure and secondary structure.
Primary structure is the structure that the character experiences as they experience the story of the movie. It is the way that they change, the way that they grow. And secondary structure is the way that the audience experiences the story of the film.
Atomic Blonde suffers on both levels, on secondary structure it suffers because there are so many elements, so many 4DX bells and whistles pulled from so many other influencing movies that the movie fails to focus in on that one thing that the audience can actually care about– that one thing that the audience can actually follow.
It is three quarters of the way through the movie and we are still trying to figure out who Satchel is supposed to be. Who Satchel the spy that everyone is chasing is supposed to be… is it one of the characters we’ve met, or is it a secret person that we haven’t met yet?
We are still trying to distinguish between Satchel and Spyglass– not just because they have names that sound similar–but also, what is the difference between the two of them– and Percival is he Satchel? We are still trying to figure out the basics of what the character actually wants as she navigates all this smoke and mirrors.
And then we have the primary structure, the emotional structure, and the truth is, if your craft isn’t great and your secondary structure isn’t perfect and you don’t have a surprise ending, and you simply just tell a simple story well told, the audience is going to go on a much better journey than if you have the most complicated secondary structure ever.
The primary structure of this movie is the thing that is missing most and that is just plain and simple, “What is the journey of the writer? What do we care about, about this character? What does she really want and how is she changing in relation to that want?”
And if you just pursue that one thing, you will end up with a movie that isn’t only 100 times more fun, but is also 100 times more meaningful than Atomic Blonde.
A great podcast with sharp concise comments that takes you on a journey to the place you want to be as a writer– understanding what it means to write a strong character driven script.
I agree with you that the movie was lacking in character development and was also difficult to follow. Funny, I thought the fight scenes were a bit off the deep end to the extent that I found myself giggling at how much beating these characters were able to take without dying from internal hemorrhaging! However, that was part of the genre, so I was able to accept that. In reality gun fights are dull and the human body cannot take so much beating!
I disagree however with what you say about how the film handles the 1980s. The soundtrack was an awesome throwback to the new wave, post punk bands that were around in the 80s. The film also portrayed the gritty European punk rockers of the 1980s pretty well. Even the bleach blonde hair was a reference to an 80s look, which had since seemed to make a resurgence. They were trying to reference the “end” of the Cold War and work it into the plot— this was Ok.
The film was full of gorgeous images and Charlize Theron is a stunner with an awesome wardrobe, which was pretty much why I went to see the movie in the first place. I didn’t have very high expectations regarding plot and character development when I sat down to watch the movie.
I’ll take your note on the 80s punk look. Glad it was helpful for you, Beth!
Then again, this is the writer who wrote 300, so style over substance is the name of his game. Your words might have been put to better use on a more intelligent film.
Hi Christian, Thanks for the comments. Personally, I think we can learn just as much from the movies we hat as from the ones we don’t. So I’m pretty egalitarian in what I analyze. There are real opportunities to tell great stories in action format– so my hope is that more emerging writers will take those lessons with them as they get successful.