There is a moment halfway through The Rhythm Section that encapsulates the entire film’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a car chase through the streets of Tangier that is shot entirely from the front seat of the vehicle, as terrified would-be assassin Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) flees the all-male enemies pursuing and shooting at her. Director Reed Morano puts you right in the middle of the action in what starts out as a stunning one-take sequence but then simply becomes a camera swinging frenetically back and forth as cars torpedo around your peripheral vision.
Meanwhile, a screaming and vulnerable Stephanie, fresh out of training, reacts realistically and wildly to the chaos around her: this is no suave superspy smoothly navigating through the carnage, but a flesh-and-blood human being – who still manages to escape as the scene jarringly cuts away to her in a safe house. And by the way, just who the hell were those guys chasing her anyway?
There’s a lot to admire about The Rhythm Section even if it’s not always fully enjoyable. Based on the first in a series of books by Mark Burnell (who wrote the screenplay) and directed with a curious mix of daring and lethargy by Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale, I Think We’re Alone Now), the film stars Lively as a young British woman whose parents and siblings – as we find out in flashbacks – have all been killed in a plane crash, sending her into a tailspin of her own.
Strung out on drugs and working as a prostitute, Stephanie is approached by a journalist (Raza Jaffrey) who claims that the plane was brought down by a terrorist bomb – and that the man who made the explosive is walking around free in London. A devastated Stephanie finds her way to Boyd (Jude Law), an ex-MI6 agent (whose last name is just one letter away from another well-known British intelligence operative) who lives in seclusion on the shore of a Scottish loch. Stephanie wants revenge and wants Boyd to train her; he reluctantly agrees, warning her that she may not survive the physical, emotional and psychological price of the work she is setting out to do.
The Rhythm Section is produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, whose family has controlled the James Bond film franchise since Dr. No opened in 1962, and at first one might think that this is their answer to everyone who has asked whether 007 can ever be played by a woman. The Broccolis’ response is to make a film that is decidedly anti-Bond in every way: the best part of The Rhythm Section is its gritty realism and its total focus from the perspective of the female protagonist.
Pain, fear and violence are very real in the movie – Stephanie never gets up, brushes herself off with a quip and keeps going. Some of her injuries linger throughout the course of the film. Although the story goes to some of the same exotic locations as the Broccolis’ other globe-hopping spy, Stephanie never glams up or plays the seductress except for one brief scene. And as Boyd warns her, being in the game of dealing death can take a heavy toll, as when Stephanie learns to her horror that an attempted assassination has inadvertently taken the lives of two innocents. “I have to live with that for the rest of my life,” the already hollowed-out Boyd says flatly as Stephanie’s eyes widen and spill over with tears.
Where The Rhythm Section does go off-kilter is with the story itself and the connections between the people in it. One gets the feeling that Burnell wrote the script assuming that everyone, like him, knows the book. There are plot holes, a confusing use of time, random name changes for characters, and a sort of generic, undercooked spy film template that saps a lot of the energy from the action onscreen. Morano’s solution is to shoot most of the movie in tight close-ups, which creates a certain claustrophobic feeling that works in some scenes but renders others far more closed-off than they should be.
Lively, an actress of limited range but plenty of gusto, does perhaps her best work to date as Stephanie even though the performance never veers too far from one note of resolute suffering. The character’s arc is never clearly defined and her transformation into a brutally efficient warrior happens rather suddenly. Still, she acquits herself believably in the action scenes (another one-take sequence, this time a vicious hand-to-hand fight with Boyd, is a doozy) and bravely handles the character’s dissolution as well. Law is excellent as usual (he might well have made a formidable Bond in his younger years) but Sterling K. Brown, as the clichéd “information man,” is on less solid footing with a fuzzily written character who is meant to have many layers but just ends up vague instead of complex.
In the woefully short list of female-led espionage movies, The Rhythm Section (the name is derived from Boyd’s analogy of controlling one’s breath and heart rate to keeping time in a musical combo) has more in common with the now-classic La Femme Nikita than, say, the gonzo Atomic Blonde. The conflict between a secret agent’s basic humanity and the cold-bloodedness required by the job is a well-worn staple of the genre. The Rhythm Section at least tries to do something different and more affecting with that trope, even if it misses a few beats.
The Rhythm Section opens in UK cinemas on 31 January