Marked by Blake Lively’s blisteringly feisty lead framed with a cracking English accent very few Americans get so right, a skilled and fragmented narrative about avenging a family built on echoes of the past and one terrifying single take car chase, The Rhythm Section is a worthy cousin to Bond and his tropes. Istanbul, Tangiers, foot chases across white washed middle eastern rooftops awash with TV aerials, Scottish Highland gun training outdoors, Land Rovers racing and crashing through Scottish estates, a Michael G. Wilson cameo, deadly private pools, fist fights in riads, Bond FX guru Chris Corbould on Second Unit Directing duties, Bond producer Gregg Wilson co-producing, EON’s Debbie McWilliams on casting duties and Bond newbie Hans Zimmer overseeing the production of the synth-minded score and the welcome return of soundtrack singer Lisa Gerrard (Gladiator), director Reed Morano’s adaptation of Mark Burnell’s 1999 book is definitely from the House of Bond.
Yet, as the Harry Palmer trilogy proved in the 1960s for 007 producer Harry Saltzman, those codas and familiar beats need very different dressing to be very different films. The Rhythm Section works best when it becomes a brutal, wholly independent and female actioner devoid of the physical ease, globetrotting swagger and necessary bombast of a 007 title. This is a film and caper plucked from the headlines and an international unease that Bond can never comfortably allude to. Bond’s enemies are fictional wolves in sheep clothing. That is not the case in Stephanie Patrick’s world of mundane, but lethal bombmakers and bombers and the hints of a Manhattan underbelly that felt like great fodder for a whole other chapter. The Rhythm Section is about economy class travel (literally), the personal destruction of terrorism and a human world that doesn’t get to exact revenge and reach end credits in a shower of champagne and luxury. Like Harry Palmer before her, Lively’s Stephanie takes the bus, makes do with what is in the kitchen and is struggling with her own vices that mainstream Bond movies cannot entertain. This is a story world of Soho vice girls, abusive little men, slaughtered children, self medicating cyber nut-jobs and the double-edged duality of international security, personalities and politics.
With the licence to kill deliberately removed from this film’s safety nets, The Rhythm Section evolves into a solid novella of a revenge mystery – with a very nearly star-making turn from Blake Lively, stellar cutting from editor Joan Sobel (Kill Bill, A Single Man) and great international acting support from Jude Law, Amira Ghazalla, Richard Brake, Raza Jaffrey and a woefully underused Geoff Bell. It has its story confusions and doesn’t feel quite like the franchise starting pistol the sequel novels and the ‘female Bond’ pressure maybe need it to be, but director Morano has fashioned a wilfully dour, acutely cold, wholly contemporary and tight little grenade of a film that has possibly earned its Funeral in Berlin follow up.
The Rhythm Section opened in the UK from January 31 2020.
With thanks to EON Productions and Paramount Pictures.