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Non-Review Review: The Rhythm Section

Perhaps the most revealing distinction between The Rhythm Section and the James Bond franchise is that the characters in The Rhythm Section appear to have done their beer sponsorship deal with Stella Artois rather than Heineken.

That’s a little facetious. After all, it seems highly likely that Heineken paid a great deal more to sponsor No Time to Die than Stella Artois paid for a few minutes of screentime in a late January release from producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Nevertheless, there is something to it. Although the marketting copy is keen to sell The Rhythm Section as something of a gender-swapped teaser for No Time to Die“from the producers of James Bond,” boasts the trailer and the advertising – it’s to the credit of director Reed Morano that she is interested in something a little bit more complex and sophisticated.

Taking a shot at it.

Of course, The Rhythm Section doesn’t entirely work. It is a messy and clumsy film. At points, this seems to be a deliberate stylistic choice and a clear point of contrast, an attempt to imbue the classic spy movie format with a sense of the chaos that informs and shapes the real world. At other moments, it feels like a miscalculation and an error in judgment. The Rhythm Section is an earnest attempt to crash the trappings of an espionage revenge thriller into a more intimate personal drama about grief and trauma, but sometimes the mix goes wrong and the film veers into the realm of indulgent self-parody.

Still, there’s a lot to like about The Rhythm Section in spite of its imbalances. The film is genuinely trying something something ambitious, even if it occasionally buckles under the weight of those attempts. At its best, The Rhythm Section suggests a new spin on an old formula. At its worst, it is at least anchored in a compelling central performance amid overwrought clichés. The Rhythm Section might not hit every note perfectly, but it manages to keep time.

Spy, craft.

There are any number of obvious comparisons to make between The Rhythm Section and the Bond franchise, most notably the fact that it’s produced by EON and the marketing has heavily pushed the involvement of Wilson and Broccoli as producers. Indeed, it’s hard to interpret Broccoli’s recent statements to the press that she doesn’t want a female James Bond but that people should “just create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters” as anything other than marketing for The Rhythm Section. You want a female James Bond? the subtext asks. Then come and see The Rhythm Section.

There is something disingenuous in the comparison invited by Broccoli’s comments. Indeed, audiences lured to The Rhythm Section by that subtext are likely to leave very disappoint. Nevertheless, the film does very little to actively discourage the comparison. The Rhythm Section names Stephanie’s handler “B” in the style of “M” – both in reference to the traditional role of “C” in the British intelligence community. The film revels in its spy film trappings, from the classic seduction ploy to completely unnecessary use of lethal toxins. (It plays both these stock elements with a surprising seriousness.)

The Rhythm Section leans heavily into references to Daniel Craig’s first appearance in the role in Casino Royale, which makes sense for a gritty spy film from the producers of the Bond franchise. Both films open with a teaser that follows the lead character on their first assassination mission. When Stephanie confronts a financier with plans to avenge the loss of his son, he asks, “And how would you do this?” Stephanie replies, “Violently.” It’s a directly lift from a double-agent asking Bond about his colleague, “How did he die?” With Bond replying, “Not well.”

However, what is most interesting about the relationship between The Rhythm Section and the Bond franchise is the way in which The Rhythm Section seems to play off some of the darker and deeper insecurities that have informed so many of the Bond films, particularly since the end of the Cold War. At its core, The Rhythm Section is an espionage thriller for the post-nation-state age, populated by spies who have forsaken both ideology and patriotism in favour of personal satisfaction.

Rhythm and blues.

The Rhythm Section is effectively an island of misfit toys. Stephanie is a former Oxford student who is recruited by Iain Boyd to work as an international assassin. Boyd is a former MI6 agent who was fired after creating an international incident than embarrassed the Americans, and so conducts his war in private. Boyd points Stephanie to Marc Serra, a washed up CIA operative who now works as an information broker without any national affiliation. Boyd and Serra are both men who have been chewed up by their countries and spit out, but find themselves using their skills honed in service of international espionage to survive.

The villains of The Rhythm Section are no better. The plot’s instigating tragedy was the bombing of an airline that killed hundreds of people. However, the bombing was reported as an accident, an incident without any inciting cause or motivating purpose. The attack was ordered by a religious extremist, but he died long before the plot kicks into action, killed anonymously “in a drone strike.” Instead, Stephanie finds herself targetting mercenaries who sell their skills to the highest bidder. “He does it for profit,” muses Serra of the man who designed the bomb. “Not the Prophet.”

Ideology is thin on the ground in the world of The Rhythm Section, which is built around the idea of chaos and disorder. This fear has haunted the Bond films since the dying days of the Cold War, most notably in the character’s tendency to “go rogue” in the films from License to Kill onwards. After all, Daniel Craig’s iteration of the character has retired no fewer than three times over four films, and Pierce Brosnan’s character constantly struggled to adapt to a world that didn’t necessarily need him any more. Of course, the Bond franchise always pulls back on that fear, for obvious reasons.

Instead, The Rhythm Section commits to this almost nihilistic perspective. The bulk of the case in The Rhythm Section are outsiders and mercenaries, lurching through the motions because they don’t know how to do anything else. There’s a grimness to the film that is surprisingly refreshing. As much as The Rhythm Section comes from producers Wilson and Broccoli, it also comes from director Reed Morano. While Morano has a long and varied filmography, she is perhaps best known to modern audiences for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale.

Looking Lively.

Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Rhythm Section is a very earnest and serious work that occasionally tips over into grim and gritty self-parody. After all, this is a film that it quickly flashes back to an extended sequence in which its female lead so numbed by a family trauma that she has slipped into a world of drug addiction and prostitution. Digging into her backstory, Boyd is less than impressed, rattling off, “Drugs. Prostitution. It’s a cliché. You’re a cliché.” He’s not wrong. It’s actually the closest the film comes to self-awareness, with Boyd offering some entirely justifiable auto-criticism.

The Rhythm Section is not a subtle film. There are points at which the film seems to entirely consist of flashbacks of happy family time intercut with intense handheld close-ups of haggard characters staring vacantly into middle distance – for contrast! The Rhythm Section is not a film that shows from unpleasantness, but it’s also not a film with a light touch. The contrast can be jarring. The Rhythm Section is a little too self-serious at points, a little too explicit in its desire to be taken entirely seriously while its lead character plays with wigs and snake venom.

However, when The Rhythm Section works, there’s something quite exciting about the cocktail that it produces. Morano offers a film that is not a genre fusion so much as a genre collision. In its best moments, The Rhythm Section offers a raw and intimate study of grief and trauma intersecting with the familiar trappings of a spy thriller. To pick an obvious example, Morano shoots the film’s big car chase set piece from a handheld camera in the passenger’s seat. Morano isn’t pushing for the visceral thrills of the Bourne franchise so much as the intimacy of a low-budget indie.

Throughout The Rhythm Section, there are constant reminders of just how unpleasant and uncomfortable this sort of work must be – and should be. Despite months of training, Stephanie consistently botches her assignments, leading to horrific struggles. One such sequence around the midpoint is memorably set to the notes of Dream a Little Dream of Me reverberating through an empty house, while another finds Stephanie leveraging herself using a knife embedded in an opponent’s thigh. These unpleasant beats are all the more effective for being juxtaposed with the romantic globe-trotting associated with the espionage genre.

Sterling work.

In its best moments, The Rhythm Section suggests something close to a faithful cinematic adaptation of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, a familiar genre template bent and warped in unusual and unconventional directions. The Rhythm Section is a little too uneven to pull of what it’s attempting, but it’s still a fascinating twist on a familiar template.

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