“THE RHYTHM SECTION”
Starring Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown
Written by Mark Burnell
Based on the novel “The Rhythm Section,” by Mark Burnell
Directed by Reed Morano
Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson
Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt
Edited by Joan Sobel
Music by Steve Mazzaro
For many years, many people have suggested that longtime film producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, the veteran stewards, protectors, keepers—and producers—of the James Bond films should perhaps branch out from the Bond franchise and produce some of the hundreds of perfectly good, and sometimes great, spy stories and novels out there, real and fiction, and thus put their film, producing and spy movie expertise to use in some spy films not associated with Ian Fleming’s 007.
Thankfully, and with good results, Broccoli and Wilson have indeed done just that with the welcome, fun, entertaining and original spy caper action adventure suspense thriller “The Rhythm Section,” which succeeds on several levels as a modern-day spy thriller, but also manages to be as far away and different from a Bond film as one would hope—and that’s a good thing. Not because Bond films are bad, because, in general, they aren’t, but because Bond films, of course, occupy their own space and time in film history, and they are what they are—that’s a good thing, too. But every other spy film does not—and should not—be a Bond film. That’s been the mistake of too many Bond rip-offs: They try so hard to be a Bond-style film, or even a Bond-homage-style film, many of them end up just failing, lost in their own webs of confusion. The better modern-day spy films adhere to certain Bondian themes, premises, qualities, styles and stories—but also are smart enough to exist in their own world, space, time and universe through the use of intelligent, inventive and original filmic qualities. And, again, thankfully, this is the spy film realm where “The Rhythm Section” falls and thrives—the movie is a gritty, realistic, reality-based, down-to-earth, believable (still in a willing-suspension-of-disbelief state, of course—this is a spy film, after all), humorous and entertaining spy movie that retains its own identify and operates in its own world—but all the same, occasionally gives some nods, winks, homages and hints at that other spy world, that Bond world. Thus, the Bond films do remain present, but solely on the fringes in this manner, more as an influence, a mentor, and an unseen but still felt overseer, in a way, of all thing spy film related. And this exists for spy films in general, simply because of the influence that Bond films have had on the genre since 1962, when the first Bond film, “Dr. No,” was released. This influence exists for “The Rhythm Section” not just because Broccoli and Wilson are the producers, but because it’s just about impossible, realistically, to watch any spy film during the last fifty-eight years and not think about James Bond and the Bond films.
Some may argue with that, but if they do, they haven’t been paying attention. And this is not necessarily a bad thing—Broccoli and Wilson have overseen one of the most successful—and consistently fun, enjoyable and entertaining—film series in all of film history. The Bond series is just plain great on every level—even if there are a few duds or dud scenes throughout the series—of course there are—and if this influence and control hovers over the spy film genre, well, perhaps that’s good in that this influence can challenge and prompt filmmakers to make a spy film that is indeed different, unique and a stand-alone entity that perhaps can take the genre in other directions. Some suggest that this is indeed what Doug Liman, Patrick Crowley, Richard N. Gladstein, Tony Gilroy and the rest of the cast and crew of 2002’s “The Bourne Identity” accomplished with that movie, and that is correct. Some suggest also that this is what other filmmakers accomplished with both versions of “Le Femme Nikita” (1990 and 1993); “Atomic Blonde” (2017); “Taken” (2008); “Bridge of Spies” (2015); “Munich” (2005); and the excellent film “Operation Finale,” from 2018, which no one saw but everyone should have seen. And many more modern-day spy films, too, of course, fit this mold—realistic, gritty, rough-edged, brutally violent at times, still-entertaining, full of spy movie qualities, elements and stylistic aspects, and, again, lurking underneath it all, as a bit of respect for the grand lord overseer of all things spy movie, just a hint of respect, recognition and honor to Ian Fleming, James Bond and the Bond films.
So congratulate Broccoli and Wilson for succeeding on this level—producing a competent, enjoyable, action-packed, stylish and thrilling spy movie full of twists and turns, double dealings, guessing games, codes and ciphers and tracking and surveilling and renaissancing and following and disguises and alibis and fake identities and guns and fistfights and explosions and car chases, yes–but all the while somehow still, as noted, and to the movie’s credit, remaining solidly, firmly, on that realistic, reality-based, alternative, edgy level of basic believability. The movie remains grounded in reality, rather than eliciting Bondian gasps of concurrent wonderment, laughs and eye-rolling at, say, some of the Bond films’ more outrageous—outrageous in a good way—and purely fantastical, otherworldly aspects. “The Rhythm Section” will entertain and keep you close to the real world—a difficult feat for these modern-day spy films to achieve—but this is what any modern-day spy film has to do to avoid being lumped and clumped in with those aforementioned throwaway Bond rip-off movies.
“The Rhythm Section” tells the cliched—yes, cliched—story of a down-and-out, non-spy-world, regular tough middle class British working girl, Stephanie Patrick, who is, somewhat out of nowhere, but not entirely out of nowhere, recruited by spies for a secretive, dangerous, life-threatening covert mission to track down and kill a terrorist ring responsible for hundreds of deaths and a ring that also poses the risk of killing more innocent people in the future. Patrick, in a cliched—yes, cliched—manner, is trained by operatives for this mission, and the training is difficult and tests every manner of her being—mentally, intellectually, psychologically, physically. She is pushed to her limits, she breaks down, she thinks she can’t do it, she rethinks her standing and the mission and her abilities, and she comes to rely on her trainers, educators and mentors to help her through the difficult training. Finally, she overcomes her various obstacles, toughens up—and embarks on her mission, donning various disguises and identities as she travels the world, meeting secretive, underworld spies and operatives and agents and rogues and terrorists and others, following leads, gathering information, dodging bullets and knives, getting busted up in various fights, and throughout, learning more about her, her mission and the crooked, crazy, corrupt and conniving world of the intelligence underworld. And, as mentioned, along the way, there are indeed plenty of the aforementioned spy movie staples—exotic locations around the world; shady and untrustworthy operatives who are difficult to trust, much less keep alive; clandestine meetings in darkened clandestine places; double-crosses; good and bad information; those fistfights and chases and explosions; and plenty of other familiar, but still welcome, spy thriller staples.
And, of course, all of this sounds—and is—cliched, recognizable and seemingly something overly familiar. However, this is true for all of the aforementioned modern-day spy films. What makes a movie transcend clichés and become that original, unique, inventive and thus entertaining, worthwhile movie is just how the writers, producers, directors, cinematographers and editors work together to knowingly and noticeably overcome those clichés, use those clichés to their advantage, work around, through and above the clichés on all filmic levels, and thus craft a workable spy film that ultimately rises far above the inherent clichés and works in an original, inventive manner. And this, again, is what “The Rhythm Section” manages to do—the film embraces, yet also rises above, its clichés.
Several examples can illustrate how the experienced Broccoli and Wilson, the assured and knowing director Reed Morano, crafty cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and smart editor Joan Sobel came together to overcome these genre clichés and make them their own. First, as noted, Broccoli and Wilson made a firm decision overall and at the outset that this film would exist more in the “Bourne”/”Taken”/”Munich”/”Atomic Blonde”/”Operation Finale” mode, mood and atmosphere, and they succeeded. Morano keeps things grounded, but not too grounded, and he knows that in a more reality-based spy caper, the film still needs bursts of action and adventure and suspense to keep audiences interested and entertained, and Morano balances the talk and the drama with the action, resulting in an even-paced, well-timed, well-edited film. Morano also keeps his actors grounded, keeping them, too, real and never over-the-top, both in their acting, presence, energy and characterization. Working from a smart script by Mark Burnell, who adapted the screenplay from his book of the same name, Morano and Burnell let their spy world characters have flaws—many flaws, actually. Patrick, her mentor, Iain Boyd, played with a ferocious intensity and straightforwardness by Jude Law, and one of Patrick’s operative sources and contacts, Marc Serra, played nonchalantly and quite understated by Sterling K. Brown, all have noticeable, non-hidden, easily-seen flaws. They make mistakes, they have made mistakes in the past, and, at times, they’re not sure if they’re making the right decisions as Patrick carries out her revenge mission. Patrick, Boyd and Serra are real people, easily grounded in the real world, and as such, they are relatable and even likeable. Thus, the audience can connect with these characters, and the actors’ characterizations, thus maintaining a high level interest in what these characters are doing, and how they are do what they are doing.
And Morano, Burnell, Bobbit and Sobel collaborate on several action sequences that are—again, much like the action sequences in the films mentioned previously—staged, choreographed, blocked, marked, filmed and edited in entertainingly original ways. Several fistfights involve injuries to all involved in the fight—and real, noticeable injuries, to Patrick and her adversaries. There’s no series of crazily-unbelievable punches, goofy, unneeded martial arts movements and oddly-staged kicks and hits that defy imagination and believability, even in the context of fantasy. Instead, the punches, kicks and hits are real, and they cause real pain. A car chase—yes, a car chase—is filmed with such inventive camera work and editing, this chase sequence should be shown to film students as yet another example of how to make this spy, action and adventure staple new and interesting. Without giving away too much, Morano, Bobbitt and Sobel film this one particular car chase in such a claustrophobic, closed-in, cramped—and entirely suspenseful and thrilling—manner, the scene works as something new. So “Rhythm Section” succeeds even in presenting a usually-typical car chase in an inventive manner. Even a scene involving an explosion is grounded in reality—much like, yes, many similar explosion-and-aftermath scenes in many modern-day war movies. The scene is not entirely original, but the way it’s handled, and its aftermath, remains watchable and wrenching. And the overall manner in which Patrick and Boyd go about their spy business is funny, albeit in a black humor mode of funny—point-blank, as noted, they make mistakes. They stumble, bumble, and even endanger themselves and others. They get played by slimy, conniving, sneaky double-dealing agents, and they even continually question their actions, motives and results. They are real human beings.
And Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick, and Law and Brown excel at simply playing those real people. Lively is as vulnerable, prone to injuries (to prove the point, Lively was actually injured on the set—in real life—and production was delayed because of the injury) and questioning of her actions as she is tough, smart, courageous and brave. She cuts her hair and changes her looks, she changes her names, and she lies, cheats, steals and exchanges secrets and information all while continually suffering from flashbacks to her pre-spy life, and questioning her overall mission, and wondering if she can do what she’s trying to do. Just like, well, everyone else in life. Everyone sometimes just stops and wonders just what the hell we’re doing in this life—that’s normal, and real. Law’s Boyd, a past MI6 agent, knows his spying and intelligence stuff, but he, too, made some mistakes in the past, and he’s been trying to atone for his mistakes ever since. He takes Patrick under his broken and shattered wings, and he, too, is unsure if this rag-tag, rough-and-tumble team can ever fly or soar or accomplish their mission. Law, like Patrick, is vulnerable and tough, confident and unsure. Serra, as played by Brown, is all cool and ease and money and success—that’s the nature of the character—but he, too, is conflicted—and he also falls for Patrick.
That latter emotion is understandable in “The Rhythm Section,” as Lively plays Patrick as action-adventure sexy, tough and independent. Even aside from Lively’s good looks, the character’s presence, as presented by Lively, is sexy just based on what Patrick is doing—ditching her past life, throwing everything to the winds, and risking everything on her mission of revenge and redemption. Patrick is sexy tough as much as Charlize Theron’s main character was sexy tough in “Atomic Blonde,” (2017) and as much as Gil Gadot was sexy tough in “Wonder Woman” (2017) and Brie Larson was sexy tough in “Captain Marvel” (2019). Which raises another important, positive and strong point about “The Rhythm Section”—the movie succeeds in presenting another strong, tough, physical, independent female action-adventure hero, which, even today in 2020, the world still needs on a greater level. It’s absurd that this has to be mentioned in 2020, but the film world does need more strong, tough, physical and independent female heroes in movies, still. And Lively is up to the challenger, injuries and physicality and athleticism and toughness and sexiness included. Her Patrick bursts off the screen not just as a strong, likeable character, but, importantly, as a strong, likeable female lead spy action adventure thriller character. And that’s important, still, in 2020.
The cipher-like title of the movie refers to some well-known advice that is often given to people learning how to shoot, fight, run, hike, drive, train, work out, and learn physically-demanding and mentally-demanding regiments, exercises and skills: the heart and the lungs can be the foundation of your body during times of extreme stress and tension, and if one has to maintain control over the mind and body during such strenuous training, one has to learn to control the heart and the lungs—the rhythm section of the mind, body and soul. Patrick takes this to heart, so to speak, pun intended, and as she learns to control her mind, body and soul, she also manages to control her mission, her purpose, her standing, her confidence—and her life. It’s a great message for any movie to impart, but it’s an especially important message and theme for a spy movie to tell—get your heart, lungs, breathing, body, mind and soul in synch, and who knows what you can accomplish. And who knows what level of needed redemption a person can find once they reach that level of peace with themselves. It’s an empowerment message, and it’s a good message to decipher and uncode in a spy thriller.
There’s a somewhat-suggested suggestion near the end of “The Rhythm Section” that the world, film world and spy movie world could maybe might perhaps possibly see more of Stephanie Patrick in future stories and movies. Most of the time these days—oh, about 95 percent of the time—this suggestion of future films in a series would elicit louds protests, groans, denouncements and even screams of outright terror, but, wouldn’t you know it, in this particular case, yes, indeed, it could be fun and welcome to see Patrick appear in another spy suspense thriller. As long, of course, that the proceedings retain their originality, inventiveness, grounded atmosphere and down-home and realistic nature and don’t descend into parody, repetition, more blatant clichés and too-familiar familiarity.
Perhaps Broccoli and Wilson should listen to Law’s character, who imparted that central-theme and central-message advice about paying attention to, and listening to, the body’s heart and lungs to achieve that level of success and peace: If the producers take a few steps back, sit back, relax, feel their lungs and breathe some breaths of fresh air—and listen to their hearts at the purest, most real level, then perhaps their “Rhythm Section” can play at the same successful level once again, and return for a welcome encore.