A handful of bad decisions sink this competent spy thriller.
Sometimes a movie just can’t get out of its own way. I remember way back in the before times, January 2020, when this film came out thinking “what the hell is this film even about?” A year later, I finally know, and I have to say that Global Road Show deserved to go out of business for how poorly they marketed this film.
The Rhythm Section (2020)
Stephanie Patrick veers down a path of self-destruction after a tragic plane crash kills her family. When Stephanie discovers it wasn’t an accident, she turns to a former CIA operative who can help her find the culprits. But her quest to uncover the truth soon turns into a full-blown quest for revenge as Patrick decides to punish those responsible.
There’s hardly any rhyme or reason to why this film became a box office bomb of historical proportions. Reed Morano is a skilled director and cinematographer, and she’s backed up by the folks who brought you the current string of James Bond films. The story is adapted from a best-selling book that has gone on to spawn a franchise, and it was adapted by the original author. It has a stellar cast featuring Blake Lively, Jude Law, and Sterling K. Brown. And despite all that, it went on to make the least money of any film premiering in 3000 theaters, and it didn’t even have Covid-19 to blame.
What Went Wrong?
- Identity Crisis. Whenever I talked about this movie, in 2020 or this year, I inevitably got a blank stare from whoever I was talking to. This movie had zero name recognition, and I would bet that a good part of why that was is the bafflingly bland title. It sounds like another artsy, Oscar-bait movie about white people playing jazz, not a white-knuckled spy thriller. I know that it’s based on the novel by the same name, but somebody at Paramount should have demanded a title that actually conveyed the slightest bit of emotion and identity for the film.
In another sense, the film also is missing the literal theme of identity crisis. Stephanie Patrick, in the novels, is a chameleon. Her fractured sense of self from her trauma makes it so that she’s incredibly good a disassociating and becoming new identities. Here, she never feels like she’s fooling anyone with her assumed roles, least of all herself.
- Pick up the Pace. The Rhythm Section is quite punchy and thrilling in places, but it takes forever to get going. The opening credits are excruciating, taking too much time to convey one idea and emotion. Five minutes spent staring at somebody’s face is four minutes and thirty seconds wasted.
The film also spins its tires getting Stephanie up to speed about the terrorist plot, only to drop her in the wilderness and spend another eternity getting her into fighting shape. There’s a reason the training montage exists, use it!
- Overuse of Gimmicks. Reed Morano does some really cool and clever things with the camera. And then she keeps doing them. Much like the pacing issue, it becomes exhausting to have the same odd camera angle or trick used continuously for minutes on end.
The most glaring example is an extended car chase, where the camera is situated in the passenger seat. This gives a nice immediacy and focus on Blake Lively’s acting, but it makes the chase feel like being locked in a phone booth. We only see the other car or the road in brief snatches, which renders the action static and dull. If we’d cut back and forth between traditional wide shots and the claustrophobic interior shots, it could have been a really memorable reconfiguration of what has become an obligatory part of any spy thriller.
What Went Right?
- Nice Eye. Despite the missteps, Morano really shows a keen eye for cinematography. While the film features the now-requisite saturated film grain a la Jason Bourne and the new Bond films, Morano moves the camera through this familiar tableau in novel and interesting ways. The muted colors and busy set design in the Tangier sequence was gorgeous. Each location has a nice aesthetic to it and usually features its own camera angle to nicely emphasize Stephanie’s dislocation from her normal, sane life.
- Not a Bourne-Again Bond. I like that the film doesn’t oversell Stephanie as a world-beating super spy. She’s not as confident as Bond or as technically skilled as Jason Bourne. Though her story feels reminiscent of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, she doesn’t become a ruthlessly effective Black Widow. She’s just a dogged survivor who constantly trudges past her limitations while still remaining human. This gives the action and espionage sequences tension as there’s no super secret spy technique or gadget that’s going to save our protagonist when she’s in over her head.
- Blake Lively. It’s a shame that this film tanked for several reasons. First, it means lots of people didn’t get to see Lively in probably her strongest role to date. She really sells Stephanie as both a traumatized soul and a fierce survivor. I really bought into her acting ability watching The Shallows. I’m convinced by The Rhythm Section she’s got Oscar nod in her future.
Second, there’s a lot of meat left on the bone for this franchise and Lively’s character. The cast is stellar, there’s plenty of material to adapt, and Lively’s performance makes me want to see more of it. I’m sure the unevenness would work itself out in a sequel. It took three films for the new Bond films to really hit their stride. Shame this franchise is unlikely to get that chance.
How Bad Is…The Rhythm Section?
The Rhythm Section certainly has flaws. I didn’t even touch upon the fact that it lacked a really compelling antagonist, or that a few of the plot twists were hardly surprising. For all that, I actually liked the film quite a bit.
The film doesn’t reinvent the spy genre, but it does offer a solid iteration that does enough to set itself apart from the pack. It features one hell of a lead, a character and performance that I’d genuinely like to see again. Unfortunately, Hollywood just can’t seem to sell a female-led spy thriller, instead opting to keep trotting out Nikita clones when actually interesting characters like Stephanie Patrick or Lisbeth Salander get monkey-wrenched.