Legendary producers of the James Bond 007 franchise, inject some freshness into the spy and assassin genre with “The Rhythm Section”. Director Reed Morano assembles an assassin origin story with an adrenaline-rush of violence, but always maintaining a character centric approach to her visceral guerrilla style filmmaking. Blake Lively stars as the assassin to be and Jude Law as her trainer, both are mesmerizing in their roles and give great career performances. The style of “The Rhythm Section” isn’t the polished cool of the 007 films. This is a spy thriller that is both shaken and stirred.
Seeing or hearing the title “The Rhythm Section” (which has a really nice explanation to the titles term), you get to thinking that it’s a musical or maybe a based on a true story about a high school band winning the big music competition. In actuality it’s far from that, it’s from the legendary producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. The producers who have been behind the James Bond 007 films since 1987’s “The Living Daylights” with Timothy Dalton. The producers introduces us to a new action hero, based on screenwriter Mark Burnell’s own novel “The Rhythm Section”.
Although the trailers seems to set up the film to be another spy, globe trotting assassin focused action thriller, akin to the James Bond films, “Atomic Blonde”, “John Wick”, “Jason Bourne” or “La Femme Nikita”. Instead what Mark Burnell does with “The Rhythm Section” is turn the genre on its head and gives us a storyline about the birth and the makings of an assassin.
“The Shallows” star and Mrs Ryan Reynolds herself Blake Lively stars as Stephanie Patrick. She doesn’t possesses neither the skill set or the charisma of one iconic MI6 agent, nor is she even remotely categorized as an assassin. Instead she’s a prostitute and drug addict, still mourning the death of her entire family (mother, father, sister, brother), who died in a airplane crash three years earlier.
That is until a journalist (Raza Jaffrey), who has uncovered evidence that the plane crash was no accident. He seeks out Stephanie, but how he ends up finding her like a needle in a haystack within the grimy underworld isn’t made exactly clear. The news of the bombing gives her somewhere to place her grief and guilt. She hits the road to seek out Iain Boyd (a spectacular Jude Law), a former MI6 agent with ties to the case, who can help her exact revenge.
An unsympathetic Boyd trains Stephanie in gun training, fight training, gets her back in shape, off of the drugs and how to survive. He guides her in hunting those responsible for the crash, which includes the bomb maker, their boss and financier. Stephanie’s journey takes her to Tangier, Spain, the Scottish Highlands, New York City and Marseilles as the web of deceit grows thicker, involving rogue CIA and MI6 officers and Middle Eastern dictators.
The great thing about “The Rhythm Section” is the fresh take on the genre as she doesn’t just magically become a polished take no prisoners killer. Even after her training, she still isn’t the perfect assassin, we are so accustomed to see in the movies. She makes mistakes, has a hard time killing a high profile contract, she’s nervous in her negotiations, she gets beaten up and thrown around in fights and has a hard time pulling the trigger. This all results in sloppy missions with ripples of collateral damage, that leave consequences.
She is vulnerable and when she gets hurt, she hurts. As in one fight scene, her hand gets smashed into some glass and the pain that Blake Lively displays feels real. She isn’t portrayed as superhuman and just keeps kicking, she is fighting back and being tossed around in agony of pain.
This is a tale of an assassin being born. This is her origin story and it leaves it wide open to becoming Blake Lively’s personal action franchise. With it’s disappointing box office opening weekend (opening at number 8), it’s highly doubtful “The Rhythm Section” will get a continuation and that’s really unfortunate. I’m not gonna say that “The Rythum Section” doesn’t stray away from hitting the expected beats of a spy/assassin tale, but at least the filmmakers are trying to do something different with the formula.
Like an expertly trained assassin behind the camera is cinematographer turned director Reed Morano (cinematographer for “The Skeleton Twins” and director of the tv series “The Handmaid’s Tale”). It’s nice to see a female touch behind the camera, but she does it in a visceral style. Morano captures the disorientating, adrenaline-rush of violence in a visceral guerrilla style filmmaking.
When a terrorist bomb goes off near Stephanie, both herd and our hearing gets lost. When bullets splinter a window or door framing, we can feel and hear the thud. When she runs down a street, she shoots it in the style of Jason Bourne filmmaker Paul Greengrass, with a handheld camera. Or in one of the films best sequences, a car chase as Stephanie barrels down the narrow roads of Morocco is purely disorientating, claustrophobic and frightening because we are literally in the passenger seat beside her. What an incredibly filmed sequence.
Morano makes it clear “The Rhythm Section” is about getting into Stephanie’s head and is about her as a character. Morano’s directing style makes “The Rhythm Section” immersive and claustrophobic in a way that takes viewers out of their comfort zone. Author and screenwriter Mark Burnell’s story is much less focused on politics, an intricate twisty turvy plot and action, instead focusing on Stephanie’s emotional journey.
If this were any another movie it would have been drenched in a political plot or might dig deeper into the terrorism of the plane crash. Instead Stephanie only cares about learning who had a hand in killing her family, so that’s where “The Rhythm Section” goes for the classic revenge thriller. Morano doesn’t go for the Jason Bourne big action spectacle, as she is more interested in going for more grounded fight sequences. It all helps to ensure Stephanie and her character arc remain the central focus of the film, which helps “The Rhythm Section” to stand out from all the other spy thrillers.
Not only does injecting freshness into the genre and Morano’s directing help make the film work, but also ultimately it is both the performances of Blake Lively and Jude Law. Blake Lively delivers powerhouse work as she pushes herself into a physically and emotionally challenging role. Lively conveys so much internal pain within her guarded stance and body movements.
Movies nowadays are filled with female action stars who are forced to be sexy and be real ass-kickers. “The Rhythm Section” instead gives us a character so deglamorized, so emotionally scarred and so vulnerable. Lively taps into all the raw subtleties that make you feel for her and make you root for her to so badly succeed.
As Stephanie’s trainer Boyd, Jude Law is perfection in the role. His character could easily lead an entire film and could create a spin-off series. Jude Law is a real scene stealer. Although not everything works, including a supporting role from a usually terrific Sterling K Brown. He shares a lazily edited tame love scene with Blake Lively that seems uncomfortably knitted into a conversational sequence and their relationship isn’t really convincing. Morano is adept in keeping the tension rising, her characters grounded and her audience intrigued.
Author and screenwriter Mark Burnell and director Morano has fun tweaking the genre’s formulas. Other action and revenge/espionage thrillers would make it a point to deliver stylish, bloody kills. Morano assembles some terrific action sequences but always maintains a character-centric approach to them. With an unflinching and honest lens, Morano ensures we see the fear and struggle within Blake Lively, who manages to never miss a beat throughout it all.
While “The Rhythm Section” is produced by two veterans of the greatest spy franchise ever made, the James Bond series. The style of “The Rhythm Section” isn’t the polished cool of the 007 films. This is a spy thriller that is both shaken and stirred.
GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆ (3 & 1/2 out of 5)