THE RHYTHM SECTION
Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, and Richard Brake
Directed by: Reed Morano
Written by: Mark Burnell
Based on the Novel: The Rhythm Section by Mark Burnell
“I have nothing left to lose so fucking try me.” “What about your life?” “What about it?”
Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the producers behind modern James Bond, deliver a slickly intimate new spy drama in The Rhythm Section. Helmed by The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano, The Rhythm Section tells the story of Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), once a promising student at Oxford whose family was killed in a plane crash. But years after their death, a journalist reveals to Stephanie that the crash wasn’t an accident. It was an act of terrorism, one allowed by British Intelligence’s failure to act. She’s pulled into the world of spies and bomb-makers, seeking vengeance for her family and the rest of the souls taken. She trains her body and mind to seek out the attackers by a grizzled former MI6 agent (Jude Law).
While not nearly as glitzy or set-piece heavy as other efforts from Eon Productions, The Rhythm Section is an intimate, closely cropped tale of counterintelligence. The Rhythm Section bursts with close-up, handheld work from Morano. She works in tandem with director of photography Sean Bobbitt (Widows, 12 Years a Slave, and Byzantium). This visceral spy tale provides a stark contrast to the more pulpy, broader works of spy fiction films. A slow, but satisfying burn, The Rhythm Section offers a more grounded yet emotional effort for the Eon canon.
From the jump, Morano’s style and take on the Mark Burnell novel (who penned the novel kicking off the “Stephanie Patrick” series in 1999 as well as this adaptation) is instantly evocative of her closely cropped work on The Handmaid’s Tale. We are introduced to Stephanie through a sequence of keenly cut flashbacks. She cuts from hard camera displays of Lively in the now, intermittently cut with flashbacks of her and her family, occasionally interrupted by various credits. It’s a hard cut statement of intent for the film and one that Morano, the script, and actors fully live up to.
From there, the film lays out its narrative track. It establishes Stephanie, rawly portrayed by Lively, who is actively working against a “leading lady” effort here and her call to revenge. Admittedly, Morano’s closely lensed scene blocking and the aggressively dour tone of the opening scenes are a bit of a slog. They function more like a stark character drama than a focused action movie. Once Burnell and Morano establish the hook and stakes, in the form of Raza Jaffery’s quick but affecting performance, the film majorly peps up.
Following a trail from London to the Scottish highlands, the first of a few gorgeously filmed locations in the film, Stephanie meets with Boyd. Boyd is a grizzled, but soft-spoken MI6 agent on “leave” after a botched assignment. After imploring him to help her catch and kill the people who took her family, he starts her on a sort of crash course on spycraft. He trains her mind and body for the upcoming fight. Lively and Law find a kind of wryly fun dynamic instantly as they break each other down. They train through the middle of the feature in a series of fun, drolly funny, and sometimes stirring vignettes setting up the film’s literally explosive finale.
It’s here where the film starts to display Morano’s novelly intimate take on action beats. Throughout three major pieces, Morano and Bobbit film and track chaos cleanly and brutally. They highlight the very real training Lively and Law underwent and how precisely planned each sequence was. All while giving the air of absolute insanity. It is a fine needle to thread. Morano does so, in particular, with a bravura car chase in which the camera is only seated in the passenger seat next to Lively, and the finale’s pitched one-take bus explosion. Both scenes are adequately detailed in the disc’s special features (more on those in a minute). However, seeing them unfold cleanly and thrillingly more than makes up for the film’s dour opening moments.
But while the film itself is impressive, the special features accompanying it leaves something to be desired. Clocking in at a little over 40 minutes, the blu-ray disc comes with several deleted and extended scenes along with a number of featurettes centered around the film’s various set pieces. The featurettes are fairly fun and highlight the stage-like care and training required for all of the sequences. They play somewhat surface level, merely providing a fly-on-the-wall experience for the filming and not any depth of analysis for the staging. The extended and deleted scenes also don’t add much more texture. Most of them are just timing cuts that provide a touch more texture on the backstory of Boyd and Stephanie, but it’s nothing revelatory or “must watch” overall.
Despite all that, The Rhythm Section still stands as a boldly intimate spy drama, one that leans against type and tropes to deliver a very real and visceral experience. While it doesn’t get off to the best of starts, The Rhythm Section carries a fun promise of a possible female-led, female-directed Eon franchise. One that isn’t afraid to look at the human cost of these stories up close and in all their unflattering, violent detail.
The Rhythm Section is available now on digital and blu-ray. Be seeing you …