James Bond producers Eon Production rarely make movies that aren’t about 007 – The Rhythm Section marks only their third non-Bond outing.
Given that it’s a spy thriller that jets around the world, following a female would-be assassin, it would be easy to call the movie a ‘female James Bond’. But those expecting such a movie will be disappointed.
The Rhythm Section is altogether a more grounded, messy and realistic thriller, even compared to Daniel Craig’s grittier Bond era. It’s not flawless, but there’s plenty of promise if this turns out to be the launch of a series.
Based on the novel of the same name by Mark Burnell, the movie follows Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) as she seeks to uncover the truth about the plane crash that killed her entire family three years earlier.
After a cold open in Tangier as Stephanie hunts down a target, we meet her eight months earlier in London. Addicted to drugs and at her lowest ebb, an encounter with journalist Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) reveals that the plane crash wasn’t an accident. What’s more, the person responsible for the crash is in London.
Stephanie soon finds herself on a quest for vengeance with the help of spy Iain Boyd (Jude Law), but will it help her move on from the past and reclaim her life?
The unique twist on The Rhythm Section‘s approach to a spy thriller is that Stephanie isn’t really training to be an assassin. For the most part, she’s playing the role of an established assassin in order to expose those responsible for the plane crash.
That means the action scenes are lent an edge that the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne movies sometimes lack. In those you know – however hairy it gets – that they will likely survive the day and win the fight.
Here, Stephanie is woefully underskilled compared to those she’s fighting, so she’s literally fighting for her life and it makes the set pieces all the more tense.
This is especially the case in The Rhythm Section‘s standout set piece, a one-shot, first-person car chase. We never leave a terrified Stephanie’s side during an extended escape and it’s a breathless sequence. It’s visceral and intense filmmaking, managing to bring something new to a well-worn genre.
Yet The Rhythm Section is less successful elsewhere. Because it’s essentially an origin story, it has to hit familiar beats, like a training montage, which at times make the first half a familiar slog. There an odd tone to this section too, the jazzy score not quite matching what we’re seeing on screen.
When Stephanie starts her mission the movie finds its footing and delivers consistent thrills, often playing out in unexpected ways as Stephanie begins to realise who she can – and can’t – trust. There’s nothing you’d call a major surprise in store, but the movie does commit to the fact that Stephanie is an amateur.
The problem here is that the plot becomes contrived. At one point, Stephanie is sent on a seemingly random mission, only to be then told that the person she’s tracking down is also linked to the plane crash. When the conspiracy is uncovered, the reasons behind such contrivances become clear, but as you’re watching it, it’s eyeroll-inducing.
Through it all though, The Rhythm Section is propelled by a compelling performance from Blake Lively.
Following on from the excellent A Simple Favour, it’s another dark role for her and it’s clear she relishes playing against type. She manages to make corny lines work – “How would you do that?” she’s asked of her mission and replies, “Violently” – and convinces in the brutal one-on-one fight scenes (one of which led to an on-set injury).
It’s thanks to Lively that Stephanie is a character you’re firmly behind, despite the niggles with the script and pacing.
Come the climax, you do want to see what comes next and with the origin out of the way, there’s hope that a follow-up could hit all the right notes.
The Rhythm Section is out now.
Director: Reed Morano; Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K Brown, Max Casella; Running time: 109 minutes; Certificate: 15
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