Hollywood has been struggling to create female movie stars for a long time. By female movies stars, I mean women who when you hear their name it makes you want to see their film. There used to be almost as many as male movie stars but female box office draws have grown few and far between. It’s gotten so bad that Marvel won’t make a “Black Widow” flick because so many chick-led motion pictures have bombed that even the most successful production company in generations is leery.
But why? How can the industry that once produced distaff stars that ranged from Bette Davis to Katherine Hepburn to Elizabeth Taylor to Jane Fonda to Julia Roberts find itself fumbling for anyone with a double X chromosome that can have their name above the title? That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will ponder as we pit two films with the same subject matter against each other. One is an attempt to do a lady-version of a male standard while the other couldn’t be more of an old-fashioned star-making vehicle if it had a sound track by Ethel Merman and a water number with Esther Williams. It’s “Atomic Blonde” (2017) vs. “Red Sparrow” (2018) in a contest that shows self-exploitation is still exploitation.
What actresses can really learn from these movies?
Avoid bad bangs at all costs.
“Atomic Blonde” is a Cold War spy story set in the days around the fall of the Berlin Wall. The murder of a British agent in West Germany and the theft of a list of all Western intelligence operatives spurs MI6 to send in super-agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to kick ass and take names, not necessarily in that order. With platinum blonde hair and designer clothes, Lorraine is only a little less conspicuous than Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. In her search for the list, she’s teamed with Britain’s longtime head spy in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). Fortunately, they spend very little time together because Percival is about a billion times more colorful and interesting than Lorraine.
Instead, she’s largely on her own or bedding down with local French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella). Yes, this is one of those movies where the only two major female characters wind up having sex with each other and we’re supposed to believe that’s a step forward for feminism and not an attempt to titillate male viewers. Eventually, Lorraine and Percival have to get an East German double agent to safety in West Germany and the movie ends with the rare triple twist and actually almost lands it.
Though it’s based on a comic book, “Atomic Blonde” couldn’t be a more obvious rip off of 2014’s “John Wick” if it had been titled “Joan Whack.” It’s an attempt to spin a lot of attitude and some kinetic action scenes into a mid-level action hit, just with a female lead, and it falls a good deal short of its inspiration. To start with, Charlize Theron goes through the entire movie like she’s on mood stabilizers. It’s a flat and lifeless performance that you have to blame entirely on director David Leitch because Theron has proven her acting chops over and over again. Lorraine is plainly meant to be as cold and unflappable as other tough guy characters, just with ovaries. But when those tough guy characters are in good movies, they also have some kind of personality. Lorraine is a plank that merely slams into one person after another.
It’s the classic mistake when they try to make a female version of a male-dominated genre flick. The creators overcompensate by turning the female hero an exaggerated version of her male counterparts, with the result being too close to unintentional satire.
“Atomic Blonde” is plagued with another error and this one is of a more recent vintage. The trope of women fighting men as physical equals and beating them has only really been in vogue since the 1990s and when you’re talking about more tongue-in-cheek stuff like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Xena: Warrior Princess,” it’s tolerable. “Atomic Blonde,” however, thinks it’s going to take that trope and be edgier and provocative by not only having Charlize Theron fight a bunch of dudes but by getting the crap kicked out of her repeatedly. And though it’s all done with a great technical proficiency, it runs smack into the issue that makes it so hard for actresses to succeed as action stars. No normal, well-adjusted person enjoys watching a woman get beaten by a man. It’s not fun. It’s not entertaining. It’s uncomfortable and most civilized people have a visceral distaste for it. Watching Keanu Reeves get thrashed in “John Wick” simply stirs a different emotional reaction than seeing Theron get progressively more bruised and bloodied in “Atomic Blonde.”
Is that reaction chauvinistic or sexist? Maybe, but is being unmoved at seeing a man pound a woman with his fists genuinely some sort of social progress?
“Red Sparrow” in a Cold War spy saga inexplicably set long after the end of the Cold War. Seriously, every single thing about this film would have made more sense if it were set in the 1960s instead of the 2010s. Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is the young star of the Bolshoi Ballet, living in a bizarrely small apartment with her ailing mother, who also happens to be the niece of a major figure in the Russian intelligence community (Matthias Schoenaerts). After a career-ending injury, her uncle recruits Dominka into a training program to become one of the Russian government’s official whore-spies.
Before we go any further, let’s review. This movie not only thinks you could turn the star of one of the most famous ballet companies in the world into a secret agent in the era of Google, it also assumes that no one in the American intelligence community would have any information on the close relatives of a top Russian spymaster. Yeah, that pretty much sums up the level of thought put into this script.
Anyway, Dominika graduates from whore-spy school and is assigned the job of getting the name of a Russian double agent out of an American CIA operative (Joel Edgerton) and basically the whole movie is meant to turn on the audience wondering whether she’s loyal to the Russians or will betray them or double-cross the Americans or what have you. It all leads up to a legitimately good twist at the end, which the film promptly ruins with another twist that makes no sense.
“Red Sparrow” is meant to be the sort of violent, sexually charged, and self-important film and Dominika is meant to be the sort of bold and uncompromising character that young female stars sign up for to prove their worth as real actresses. Which makes the casting of Jennifer Lawrence rather odd since she’s already won an Oscar. She should no longer need to get naked in this kind of movie, yet that’s precisely what she does on several occasions. And while I’m not complaining about a nude Jennifer Lawrence, it’s such an odd career choice.
It’s also a futile gesture because no amount of bared skin could make “Red Sparrow” any good. It’s a suspense flick that has no idea how to build any suspense. For example, “Atomic Blonde” has this list the spies need to get their hands on or bad things will happens. It creates a certain amount of immediacy in everything that happens and allows the story to build tension with the old “ticking clock” scenario where they have to get the list by a particular deadline. It’s a dramatic cliché but it’s a cliché because it works. “Red Sparrow” has the search for the Russian double agent but it never does a single thing to explain why the double agent is important, why the Russians need to find him immediately, or why it’s vital for the Americans to protect him. There are no larger stakes at risk and no reason why any of it needs to be resolved right away.
The Russians in this movie are also so unrelentingly awful that there’s never any doubt that Dominika will betray them. The training she’s put through is so ridiculously brutal that the most likely result is leaving its trainees with severe cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If a viewer ever suspects that Dominika won’t betray the Russians, you can only despise her for being such a spineless fool. And there’s a moment in the training part of the movie that is truly one of the dumbest scenes I think I’ve ever seen. One of her classmates tries to rape Dominika in the shower and she beats the hell of him. Who gets in trouble for that? Not the guy they’re trying to turn into a secret agent who can’t control himself long enough to refrain from raping a fellow trainee. No, her instructors are upset that Dominika didn’t allow herself to get raped. Now, it’s all intended to build up to a later scene when Dominika shows what an awesomely controlled manipulator she has become, but that scene lacks any power because the set-up didn’t make a lick of sense.
“Atomic Blonde” was a disappointment at the box office. “Red Sparrow” is shaping up to be Lawrence’s second straight bomb and fourth movie in a row to disappoint commercially and critically. Is either the fault of their female stars? Well, you can blame Theron and Lawrence for not picking better scripts but plenty of male stars have gotten by with less-than-perfect motion pictures. What doomed Theron was that you can’t simply plug a woman into a role designed for a man, any more than you can do the opposite. Lawrence’s problem is she just got caught up in a bad motion picture. The real question is will they keep getting the same kind of chances their male peers receive?
Atomic Blonde (2017)
Written by Kurt Johnstad.
Directed by David Leitch.
Starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Moller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgard, Same Hargrave, Johannes Haukur Johannesson, and Til Schweiger.
Red Sparrow (2018)
Written by Justin Haythe.
Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Jeremy Irons, Thekela Reuten, and Douglas Hodge.