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. 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 I can’t say I fully enjoyed it. 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, Meadowland), the film stars Lively as a young British woman whose parents and siblings 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 free around 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 spy) 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 jst gets up, brushes herself off with a quip, and then runs along. Some of her injuries linger throughout the course of the film. Although the story goes to many of the exotic locations as the Broccolis’ other globe-hopping spy, Stephanie rarely glams up, playing the seductress for just 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, however, is with the actual story and the connections between those inhabiting it. One gets the feeling that Burnell wrote the script assuming that everyone 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, 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 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 cliché “information man” is on less solid footing.
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 is out in theaters this Friday Jan. 31.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye