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The Rhythm Section

James Bond is obsolete. This becomes increasingly obvious with every week that passes between us and the Cold War, and every subsequent Bond movie’s repeated efforts at trying to prove why the franchise is still relevant. Pop culture has become saturated with parodies and send-ups, from Austin Powers to last month’s Spies in Disguise. We have a host of globetrotting blockbuster action franchises, from Mission: Impossible to Fast and Furious to John Wick. Oh, and there’s also the teeny little detail that we’ve long since run out of Ian Fleming novels to adapt.

While Spectre is tied for 20th on the list of the most expensive films ever made, it ranks 521st among the highest-grossing movies ever made. To be exact, it grossed $880 million worldwide, falling well short of the $1.1 billion grossed by Skyfall. And now, four years later, Daniel Craig’s departing turn as Bond is finally limping its way across the finish line later this year.

Little wonder that Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli of EON Productions — the longtime cinema stewards of 007 — are looking to hedge their bets with a new franchise. So here’s The Rhythm Section, in which producers Wilson and Broccoli adapt the first in a series of novels by Mark Burnell. Which makes sense, given how the Bond juggernaut started out as an adaptation. Oh, and Burnell is adapting his own work into the screenplay? Not a bad idea.

Perhaps more importantly, this movie feels like a direct answer to so many critiques that have been eating away at the Bond franchise for several years. James Bond is built on an antiquated Cold War ethos, so here’s a spy thriller franchise set in the geopolitical tensions of today. Bond is a rampant womanizer and he’s more or less proven to be completely invulnerable? Here’s a female protagonist with no combat training whatsoever. You want a woman to direct a Bond movie? Well, how about a woman directing this one instead?

Wilson and Broccoli made a lot of smart moves in starting a 21st-century Bond franchise replacement. Then they went and gave it to Paramount. True to form, Paramount strangled this franchise in the crib, mismanaging it to such a woeful degree that the film got dumped at the tail-end of January. Then again, I’m not entirely sure this one would’ve stood a chance in any less awful release frame. Let’s take it from the top.

Blake Lively stars as… well, the character goes through a lot of names and aliases, but we’ll call her Stephanie Patrick. She was on top of the world, happy as could be, until her parents and all her siblings died in a plane crash. Three years later, she’s still going through the guilt by way of cigarettes, alcohol, and whatever illicit substances she can consume. She’s a hollowed-out scab-encrusted shell of a human being, working as a prostitute in the alleys of London.

Yeah, the filmmakers are laying it on pretty thick. To put it bluntly, the character isn’t tragic, she’s a cliche. In point of fact, there’s a character who says that directly to her face, word for word.

Long story short, Stephanie finds out that her parents — and the other 230-odd passengers on that plane — were collateral damage as part of a cover-up. The culprit was a bomber named… *ahem* Mohammed Reza (played by Tawfeek Barhom) with connections to some unnamed militant group in the Middle East. So Stephanie goes on a half-assed revenge mission, shit goes sideways, and she ends up in the grudging care of Jude Law, here playing a retired MI6 agent who forces our protagonist through detox and trains her to be an assassin.

Did I mention that the movie is cliched as all fuck? Because it’s cliched as all fuck.

Easily the film’s most prominent gimmick is that Stephanie Patrick is no James Bond, much less a Jason Bourne or a John Wick. She has no formal training or experience in combat or espionage, she’s not a hardened killer, and calm under pressure doesn’t come naturally to her. And yet, however cloying her motivation may be, she still has a powerful motivation and her life is such a wreck that she has literally nothing to lose. Thus she pits herself against hardened killers with basically nothing but her wits and tenacity.

In a specific sense, this kind of sympathetic and vulnerable protagonist is an extreme rarity in the genre. In a broader sense, this development arc is a textbook Hero’s Journey story, the like of which can be seen literally everywhere. What’s worse, because this was transparently made as a franchise starter, this is a development arc without any defined endpoint.

It’s a revenge thriller with no sign of what if anything Stephanie plans to do when the revenge is complete. So by the end of the movie, our protagonist has gone from a drug-addicted prostitute with one foot in the grave, to a halfway decent assassin with multiple confirmed kills, to… what exactly? What does she intend to do with her new skills as a mercenary cutthroat? How does she plan to rebuild her life? How are we supposed to feel about all of this? What kind of theme are we supposed to take away from it? Hell if I know.

Another unfortunate drawback of the premise is that our main character kinda sucks at fighting. In theory, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. There is absolutely a niche for fights that feel clumsier, more primal, and more authentic overall. Fights in which the characters visibly get tired, they feel more pain, and there’s no elaborate choreography. From start to finish, it’s perfectly obvious that the filmmakers badly wanted all of this to feel authentic and immersive, in keeping with a protagonist who’s easier for the audience to connect with.

In practice… look, I wish the best to Reed Morano. God bless and love her. I appreciate the producers for giving this bright young up-and-comer a chance, especially when that female perspective took the edge off the prostitution angle in a huge way. Heaven knows there are so few opportunities like this for female directors, so I don’t want to hold Morano’s lack of experience against her.

But I’m sorry, the action scenes in this movie SUCK.

I could point to the chase sequences, or any of the other scenes made incomprehensible by the shaky-cam. I could point to the aforementioned primal and clumsy fist-fights, all of which were shot and cut in a way that didn’t look the least bit dynamic or enjoyable. (Though that fight between Blake Lively and Jude Law wasn’t too bad.) But honestly, my favorite example has to be the car chase presented as one continuous long take, shot entirely from the passenger seat of Stephanie’s car. I know the filmmakers were trying to emulate the feel of being there in the car with our main character, but it felt like all the best shots and stunts were happening around me and I was in the absolute worst place to see it all.

(Side note: Compare this to the similar, far superior, fabled and storied sequence from Children of Men. In that pseudo-long take, there’s far more character development and interaction, and we actually leave the car when the characters do. It also helps that there isn’t very much vehicular action, so it doesn’t feel like we’re missing out on any stunts.)

I want to give all due praise to Blake Lively for her performance in this. Aside from her complete and total lack of a British accent, she went to bat in a huge way for this character. Her transformation into a dead-eyed, half-eaten ghoul left her borderline unrecognizable at the film’s outset, and her portrayal of the character’s development is astonishing. Alas, nobody else in the cast puts in even a tenth of this much effort.

From the look of it, it appears that Stephanie Patrick regularly interacts with hot guys, as James Bond is regularly surrounded by gorgeous women. Again, not a bad idea in theory. In practice, it doesn’t work because Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, and Raza Jaffrey are all so completely checked out. With very few exceptions (again, that fight scene between Lively and Law), everyone in the supporting cast looks like they’re putting in the bare minimum. Naturally, this renders any kind of romantic chemistry completely void.

Last but not least, there’s one classic aspect of the Bond franchise that this movie has absolutely no answer for: The villain. While the film is admittedly far more focused on the origins of Stephanie Patrick and her development into a world-class assassin, the film suffers dearly for lack of a strong antagonist. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the villains are so shrouded in mystery that nobody even knows who they are through most of the screen time. But even when we do get those answers, the identity and motivation of our antagonist are so thin and so flat that they barely even register. And of course the whole “Middle Eastern” angle is so rushed and so lazy that it comes off as unintentionally Islamophobic.

The Rhythm Section is a failed experiment. Blake Lively’s performance deserves a far better movie, and I love the idea of a more sympathetic and vulnerable spy thriller protagonist. I’m always up for a female-driven franchise led by a female director, and of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with an action film that feels immersive and authentic. Alas, Morano was not equal to the task of directing this, the entire supporting cast seems to be phoning it in, and the screenplay is a mass of wretched cliches.

To all those involved, better luck next time.

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