“The Rhythm Section” is the next step in the ongoing deconstruction and general grunge-ification of the debonair, Roger Moore-type James Bond spy movie.
The first wave of this grunging-up began with the Jason Bourne franchise. In the same way that “Alien” updated spaceship stories by smearing grime and print marks on the previously shiny equipment, making keyboards grubby and such, so also did Jason Bourne nitty-grit-ify the tuxedo-wearing Bond-ness of the spy genre. It exchanged sleek, Walther PPK handguns and suave, witty quips for vicious, Krav Maga-based street fighting.
Which, in turn, cross-pollinated by blowing back on the current Bond incarnations—Daniel Craig’s grittier, grungier Bond should really be named Jason Bond.
‘The Rhythm Section’: A Revenge Tale
Blake Lively plays Stephanie Patrick, a summa cum laude-level Oxford student, whose life was hit by a hurricane in the form of a transatlantic-flight plane crash that killed her entire family. The resultant PTSD of that trauma is a virulent downward spiral, dead-ending in her becoming a heroin-addicted prostitute. Which is … perhaps a bit much. Oxford? Junkie prostitute? OK whatever. Could happen.
Three years later, an investigative journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) hunts her down, revealing that the tragedy was actually caused by a bomb and not mechanical failure. Which lights a fire of vengeance under her that could double as a death wish: When asked later by her mentor about her life (and the danger to it), she replies, “What about it?”
Once Stephanie realizes that she can trust Proctor, she succumbs to immediate overzealous-revenge desire and blows her cover by not being able to bring herself to pull the trigger on bombmaker Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), which then gets Proctor killed.
So now (like Jennifer Garner in “Peppermint,” among others) follows the ubiquitous training in martial arts and weaponry montage. Discovering among Proctor’s belongings a photo of Scotland with geographic coordinates, Stephanie takes a bus to the Scottish Highlands. We don’t at first understand what she’s up to.
Once she gets there, Iain Boyd, a former MI6 agent (Jude Law), makes her do special operations military things, like shoot guns, observe her “rhythm section” for balance and calm (“Think of your heart as the drums, your breathing as the bass”), and swim in a freezing Scottish loch.
By the way, this superfan of “Braveheart” (myself) had a bit of a problem when Stephanie gets off the bus from England and the soundtrack strikes up the actual theme music from “Braveheart” (or rather, a close facsimile). Do not mess with “Braveheart,” thank you very much.
Anyway, in addition to securing spy training for herself, Stephanie also finds financial benefactors in Suleman and Alia Kaif (Nasser Memarzia and Amira Ghazalla)—the parents of the man targeted in the plane bombing.
And so, after a scant few months of training, it’s off to Tangiers to pursue her revenge plans, all gung-ho to start mixing it up with professional terrorists. There she meets an ex-CIA mercenary (Sterling K. Brown) who knows how she can get to U-17, the terrorist behind the bombing.
Order Versus Chaos
So—since everything in modern culture and marketing caters to our addictions in order to sell more product—the ante must constantly be upped. Where we’re currently at in terms of escalation is like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” when he turns every volume dial in Doc Brown’s lab up to 10, plugs in his guitar, stands in front of the Shrek-sized amplifier, hits a power chord—and blows himself through a wall.
But the Jason Bourne franchise already maxed out the spy genre adrenaline rush. So how do you turn that up a notch?
Well, actually, “The Rhythm Section” is not the first rerouting of the Bond spy genre locomotive onto new tracks. That was the recent “Red Sparrow,” about the young, physically attractive Russian spies trained to be honey traps.
“The Rhythm Section” hitches its caboose to that narrative. From the sleek, highly trained operative played by Jennifer Lawrence to Blake Lively’s no-makeup-wearing, bruised, strung-out, psychologically fragile, junkie prostitute. That’s how you grit-ify and deglam another notch downward.
So what does it amount to? “The Rhythm Section” has less in common with “Atomic Blonde” (although it features a female assassin) than it does with Adam Sandler’s recent “Uncut Gems”—namely, barely manageable chaos.
Stephanie’s trained a couple of months (which makes her an uncut gem of sorts), and now she’s going to take on pros? She has miles of heart but rudimentary (at best) hand-to-hand, gunfighting, and combat driving skills. What does that bring to the table, this state of being a neophyte in the spy-and-special-operations arena? She can’t yet impose her will, so it’s all ragged, seat-of-the-pants mayhem-survival; she could die at any moment, which raises the stakes in a certain way. It makes it all the more raw and dangerous. And therefore stressful.
Like I said about “Uncut Gems,” with its portrayal of a hapless character negotiating a minefield full of nonstop explosions—do you really want that stress? There’s something comforting in watching Jason Bourne prevail over the chaos, and not just surviving it by sheer luck.
So that’s a preference. I prefer highly skilled Jason Bourne’s chaos management over no-skills Stephanie Patrick’s chaos survival, employing nonstop, wince-worthy close calls. I like to relish the karmic retribution meted out by a master of behind-whupping. But that’s just me.
Has She Come a Long Way?
It occurs to me that Blake Lively’s cinematic stock in trade is getting herself severely harmed. The gross and gratuitous “Savages” was hard to watch, and while the lovely Lively in a peach-colored bikini is eminently watchable, she spent the majority of “The Shallows” (about sharks) dealing with lots of bodily harm and wincing and groaning. “The Rhythm Section” is no different, even borrowing heavily from the horror genre at one point.
This “upgraded” take on the spy genre substitutes raw emotional pain, hollow-eyed-but-twitchy inner vacantness, personal stakes, vulnerability to extreme wounding, and bruisingly realistic mayhem for the following type of ancient, James Bondian, arched-brow nonsense:
‘Live And Let Die’ (1973)
(007 unzips Miss Caruso’s dress with the magnet in his watch):
Miss Caruso: “Such a delicate touch.”
Bond: “Sheer magnetism, darling.”
As the old Virginia Slims cigarette ads used to say, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” and from a feminist POV, that’s progress. And I agree that Bond, such as he was, had to go. But I personally exited “The Rhythm Section” feeling harmed in my soul, and like Marty McFly—blown through a wall.
“The Rhythm Section”
Director: Reed Morano
Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Geoff Bell, Raza Jaffrey, Tawfeek Barhom, Nasser Memarzia
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2020
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5