With Daniel Craig’s fifth and final cinematic performance as James Bond due out in April, speculation as to his replacement is rife. Then again, it seems as if the 51-year-old’s successor has been debated for almost his entire 14-year tenure as 007.
The most obvious question has always been, naturally, ‘who will play the part?’ Would the franchise consider casting a person of colour in the role? And what about gender? Could the character be adapted to be female? Would it make sense? Would audiences accept it?
We’ll have to wait and see who takes up the Bond role next, but one thing the debate certainly demonstrated was an appetite for more badass women in action roles. Hollywood is patriarchal – it always has been, though 2020 will see a noticeable attempt to redress that balance. Never before have so many female directors been hired to create major studio releases. We’ve never seen so many strong leading roles for women actors, either. The general feeling now is that it’s not just James Bond that might need to change, the industry does too.
Lucy, Red Sparrow, Anna, Charlie’s Angels, Atomic Blonde, Black Widow, Birds of Prey… Action films are no longer just the remit of guys with guns. The first ‘serious’ movie of the year to prove this is Reed Morano’s action thriller The Rhythm Section.
Based on Mark Burnell’s 1999 novel of the same name, the shades of Bond are immediately apparent from the opening titles. The film comes from EON Productions, the Barbara Broccoli-owned company behind every 007 outing. Skip forward 45 minutes and we’ve got a gun-toting Brit taking down bad guys in glamorous locales such as Tangiers, Marseille and Madrid. So far, so Bond.
The comparisons begin and end there, though. Stephanie Patrick is no highly-trained MI6 secret agent with a licence to kill. She’s a broken young woman with no particular skill set who – one brief training montage with a Jude Law-shaped ex-spook aside – has to rely on her wits and guile in order to hunt down a string of menacing terrorists and mercenaries.
We open with two rather contrasting versions of Stephanie, who’s played with real zest by Blake Lively from Gossip Girl and The Town. One sees her shivering in bed, ragged, bruised and tormented – her hair short and dirty, her eyes heavy and dark. The other shows a flashback of her happy and smiling, beatific and beautiful as she enjoys spending time with her family.
Something has happened. And not something good.
That something, we soon learn, was a plane crash. Her parents and siblings are all dead. Stephanie is beset by grief and survivor’s guilt. Off the rails, addicted to heroin and working as a prostitute, she’s slowly giving up on life just a few short years after the tragedy. Until she’s thrown a lifeline of sorts… A reason to survive.
She’s approached by a journalist (played by Homeland’s Raza Jaffrey) who tells her that the flight that killed her family was intentionally bombed and that the mass murder had been covered up. A conspiracy is at play and the men responsible for the bombing are still walking the streets. She decides to find answers, takes some names and send a few people to hell.
The journey takes Stephanie to Scotland where a no-nonsense former MI6 man Jude Law gets her off drugs via cold turkey and fighting fit via some cold water swimming. A cover story created, a rich backer found and a gun in her waistband, and our rookie hit woman is off on her vengeance mission.
The rest plays out as you might imagine it, navigating the tropes of the genre well, but seldom bringing anything particularly new to the table.
The rather clumsily-titled The Rhythmn Section, referring to some slightly confusing metaphor about trying to keep calm in a combat scenario (‘think of your heart as the drums, your breathing as the bass…’), does have a few redeeming features:
Blake Lively is easily the picture’s strongest asset. Vulnerable yet tough, emotional and yet resilient, an assassin that isn’t a very good assassin is an odd premise but a committed Lively really manages to nail it. Down and out sex worker, pistol-wielding killer or femme fatale type, the Green Lantern actress demonstrates her range. Lively has charisma. Which is handy, given she’s front and centre stage in almost every single scene.
Of those scenes, every single one is beautifully staged and shot. As a skilled cinematographer, director Reed Morano knows how to make a shot look good and she doesn’t put a foot wrong here aesthetically.
Hans Zimmer’s evocative score stands out and dovetails neatly with some nicely curated ’60s rock ‘n’ roll classics, providing a backing that lifts some of the more also ran action scenes.
For what is ostensibly an action thriller, the film is quite talky. There’s a fair amount of mooning and exposition and when the fight scenes arrive, they never quite convince. That said, an impromptu car chase at the midway point stands out as one of the most exhilarating scenes of its kind in some time.
All in all, The Rhythm Section is a worthwhile espionage film and an entertaining enough way to spend an hour and 49 minutes. The central performance is rock solid and there’s enough style and directorial flair to make it worth your time. Will you remember it in a few weeks and count down the days until you can see it again? Probably not. Whether any of Mark Burnell’s three other Stephanie Patrick novels make the big screen is uncertain.
The thing’s got rhythm, but James Bond’s got nothing to worry about just yet.
Have you seen The Rhythm Section yet? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below…