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[This story contains spoilers for The Rhythm Section.]
When Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) meets ex-MI6 agent B (Jude Law), the man who will lead her to the terrorists who killed her family, she’s bruised, defeated and going through drug withdrawal. She’s a mess, the kind of walking victim who would be relegated to a brief supporting role in some other spy movie before being brutally killed off, spurring the ex-agent back into action with the evidence she leaves behind. We’ve seen this before. B even points it out to Stephanie, saying, “You’re not a tragedy. You’re a fucking cliché.” These words force her into action but never magically transform her into an action hero. We’re not looking at a character who has been trained since childhood to be a spy, and Stephanie Patrick is not the next Jason Bourne or Natasha Romanoff. Even after getting herself clean and learning a few skills, Stephanie is still a mess: one poorly equipped for the world of assassinations, dirty money and the web of lies she finds herself in. And that’s what makes her so compelling and interesting to watch.
Director Reed Morano isn’t interested in delivering what we’ve seen before, or hitting the comfortable beats of what has come to define the espionage-action film. The Rhythm Section, written by Mark Burnell, who also penned the novel of the same name, had all the makings of a new spy franchise for Paramount and EON Productions, the producers behind the enduring Mission: Impossible and James Bond series, respectively. With three other books in the series, a modest production budget of $50 million, a stellar performance from Lively and a woman in the director’s chair, The Rhythm Section seemed like the perfect opportunity for those who have been making noise for the past several years about the next Bond being a woman and calling for new heroines unconnected to comic book IP.
Yet the critical score for the film on Rotten Tomatoes sits at 32 percent, and it took in a dismal $2.8 million over opening weekend. Neither the critical thrashing the film received nor the lack of box office support from audiences is deserved. But both are reminders that for as much as critics and audiences tend to want stories that are new and break the rules, they seem to reject the films that do so at a frequency that’s nothing short of alarming.
We’ve come to expect the spy film to be sleek and sexy, populated with gadgets, physics-defying car chases, expertly choreographed combat, and as much sex appeal as can be squeezed into a PG-13 movie. The genre has typically been male dominated, and even the female-led films La Femme Nikita (1990), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Salt (2010) and Atomic Blonde (2017) are often only validated by how much they share with James Bond, Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne and John Wick. One of the most prevalent criticisms about The Rhythm Section is its pacing, which, quite deliberately, follows its own rhythm. For as often as Hollywood espionage films are dominated by fast-paced sequences that make long run times forgiving with carefully structured action and set pieces, the genre is just as defined by ex-MI6 agent and The Night Manager author John le Carre and his psychological and morally ambiguous protagonists as it is by the bombastic wish fulfillment of Ian Fleming’s 007. The Rhythm Section is far more interested in Stephanie’s internal and moral struggles than it is in positioning her as a one of a kind badass.
Familiar elements of the espionage movie are introduced in the film and then turned on their head. Stephanie’s training gives her just enough to get by, and her fighting skills are unrefined and ugly. Her arsenal is simple, with gadgets consisting of nothing fancier than an inhaler with a disorienting gas and a knife disguised as a hairbrush, neither of which get proper use. Her sex appeal is used as a means of transaction, no sexier than that of her former life as a prostitute. And the film’s car chase is one of collateral damage, close calls, and not a single smooth turn in sight. Even Stephanie’s missions are largely botched incidents she barely makes it out of alive. There’s nothing sleek or sexy about the spy game in The Rhythm Section; every aspect of Stephanie’s mission goes to show just how grueling and brutal this occupation is. While the moral complexities, pacing and R rating put Morano’s film in conversation with another unfairly dismissed spy film, Red Sparrow (2018), Stephanie’s mission and skill set is even further stripped of glamour than the world of that film. The Rhythm Section is the Blue Ruin of espionage films. Jeremy Saulnier’s film scraped the revenge film down its bones, offering insight into just how hard getting vengeance is, and just how much effort, time and ugliness it takes to kill a man. The Rhythm Section, in its deconstruction of the spy film, exists in a similar head space, one that doesn’t promise glory, satisfaction or heroism, only hurt.
Producer Barbra Broccoli, along with her brother Michael G. Wilson, has been associated with the Bond franchise all her life. Her father, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, was the man responsible for bringing Bond to the screen with Dr. No (1962). This is all to say that she knows the character better than anyone, and the spy genre is in her blood. When asked about the possibility of a female Bond in October 2018, Broccoli said, “He’s a male character. He was written as a male, and I think he’ll probably stay as a male. And that’s fine. We don’t have to turn male characters into women. Let’s just create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters.” These comments, naturally, sparked some debate, but most agreed with Broccoli’s sentiments. Yet here we are, a little over a year later, and we have our female spy character, produced by Broccoli and Wilson in a film that doesn’t position the character as a Bond knock-off, but one with her own agency and unique window into the world of M16, and it seems few care.
The problem with The Rhythm Section isn’t quality, and despite reviews that seem all too eager to dismiss what’s at hand, plenty of films have overcome the tomato splats to become box office success stories. While the film beats to its own drum, it’s plagued by the same issue that plagued The Long Kiss Goodnight, Salt, Atomic Blonde, and Red Sparrow and suffocated their franchise potential. None of these characters are based on popular IP or can be evaluated in the context of a beloved franchise. There’s little doubt that Black Widow will be a success in May, given that it has Marvel Cinematic Universe behind it and thus the investment of critics and audiences. And if Bond were to be a woman in the future, there’s little doubt that despite the raging from social media that would happen beforehand, people would see it. It’s even worth a wager that if Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) or Nomi (Lashana Lynch) received spin-offs following No Time to Die, they would fare much better than The Rhythm Section.
Inevitably, when the year reaches its end and discussions about a Black Widow sequel emerge, with the usual suspects complaining about a lack of new IP, and when the search for a new Bond begins, and the think pieces start suggesting the best actresses for the role, and when Hollywood doesn’t see a reason to greenlight theatrical mid-budget action movies with women that aren’t based on comic characters, think back on The Rhythm Section, think back on Red Sparrow, and think back on Atomic Blonde. We see the same lack of enthusiasm for new characters and new perspectives every year, despite the noise that suggests otherwise, and we’ll likely see it again and find ourselves having this same discussion. The Rhythm Section was left in the cold, and still, the beat goes on.
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