In 1965, in the middle of the Bond craze, landing between Goldfinger and Thunderball, one of the producers of the 007 series did something very odd.
The Flip Side
Harry Saltzman decided to bring to life a character from noted spy thriller writer Len Deighton, the decidedly not glamorous British agent Harry Palmer.
The Ipcress File starred a young Michael Caine as the British agent, and the film is rightly lauded as a classic of the spy genre. But it is as far from Bond as you could imagine.
Over fifty years later and Bond producer Albert Broccoli’s children, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, who run EON Productions, presented another non-Bond spy thriller.
The film didn’t do tremendously well upon release, but unfair Bond comparisons aside, is The Rhythm Section worth your time?
Blake Lively plays Stephanie, an English woman on a downward spiral since her family died in a plane crash. Tracked down by an investigative reporter who believes the crash was a bombing, Stephanie ends up in the Highlands of Scotland being trained by ex-MI6 officer Jude Law, before embarking on an international quest to track down the bomber.
On paper, and judging by the excellent trailers, the film seems to be another in that recent trope of lone maverick on a revenge mission. Whether it’s Liam Neeson‘s Taken, or Keanu Reeves‘ John Wick, or Jennifer Garner’s Peppermint, these stories seem to find an audience. Yet they, alongside films like Atomic Blonde, are all about current or former agents or assassins. The Rhythm Section is different, as Stephanie is a regular person, who transforms into a player in this murky world of espionage and crime.
And audiences stayed away.
The film has spies, but is not really a spy thriller. It has great action and stunts, but it is not a stunt-filled extravaganza like the trailers suggest. The film was delayed during filming, then the release pushed back to a January slot, partly to a hand injury suffered by Lively, and partly due to Lively’s pregnancy.
Based on a series of books by writer (and screenwriter Mark Burnell) the film is patently an origin story, with potential for further movies now that the heavy lifting has been done.
I found the film quite hypnotic in its style and in the brilliant central performance by Blake Lively. Her commitment to portraying Stephanie through her huge journey is remarkable.
Reed Morano, notable for her brilliant and award-winning episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, chooses to film much of the movie from Stephanie’s point of view, often with lingering close-ups of Lively’s face. Indeed Morano seems more interested making sure that we are locked into the events with Stephanie than observing action mayhem from a distance.
Grit and Action
The action set pieces are great, whether it’s the dirty, awkward hand-to-hand combat with Law, and at least two later shady operators, or the car chase shot entirely from within the car precedes the similar, if much more excessive (yet excellent) car chase in Netflix’s Extraction. A late shoot out where the focus is on Stephanie, with the villains a blur in the background is short, but really places you inside the action.
Stephanie is clearly out of her depth and despite her projection of confidence when she is undercover, her missions are frequently a mess, and I for one really liked this more “realistic” approach.
I really enjoyed the movie, but there are some things which are puzzling, and could be the reason for the film’s poor response.
The movie does cover a LOT of ground in around 105 minutes. The “training” she receives from Jude Law is well done, but it doesn’t feel as though much time has passed. Before you know it, she is striding about Europe looking for the criminals.
The film has a great score by Steve Mazzaro (and produced by Hans Zimmer), but the sudden appearance of seemingly random pop tracks feels very out of place. The Mamas and the Papas, Elvis Presley, The Velvet Underground, and Brenda Lee belt out just before some of Stephanie’s “missions”.
The title of the film refers to some advice given to our protagonist by Law:
Your heart is the drum. Your breathing is the bass.
So “the rhythm section” is needed to focus before firing a gun or taking a life.
The pop songs reflect her mood and are possibly chosen as indicators of how she is regulating her breathing, but if this is the case it isn’t sold too well, and instead the tracks are jarring.
Other unsatisfactory elements include the relatively low key and mundane reveal of the mastermind of the bombing which doesn’t quite hit home as you feel it should. And finally, Stephanie, necessarily humourless as a character, seems a little cold. And throughout the story she is just damned lucky.
Character over Action?
In interviews Lively and Morano discuss their energy in wanting to bring this troubled character to life, and when you learn that their ideas on the final product were at odds with Paramount Pictures requirements, you wonder if the studio wanted less character and more action?
The box office for the film was very poor to say the least. It earned $6 million worldwide against the budget of $50 million. Perhaps the downbeat, almost Euro-style thriller was at too much of a tangent from the female-led Bond movie Paramount wanted and the trailer promised. Stephanie’s “journey” seems truncated, so with hindsight one wonders if a TV/streaming miniseries would have worked better.
New Female Roles
Barbara Broccoli commented on creating female characters and not gender swapping Bond in 2018:
“Bond is male,” she said. “He’s a male character. He was written as a male and I think he’ll probably stay as a male.
“And that’s fine. We don’t have to turn male characters into women. Let’s just create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters.”
Broccoli’s comments were about Bond 25 (now titled No Time To Die), which had just lost Danny Boyle as director. Perhaps The Rhythm Section, which had finished shooting by then, was an attempt to kick-start a new franchise with a new female character.
So are spy movies required any longer? In a market where even the Fast and Furious movies have morphed into spy-like stunt behemoths, are gritty spy films as a genre on the way out?
A New Hope?
This week, Gal Gadot was confirmed as the star of a new Paramount Pictures movie “Heart of Stone” set in the world of international espionage. This movie is set to rival Bond and Mission Impossible. As Gadot’s star continues to rise, perhaps the combination of female-led action movie with the Wonder Woman actress will work. It may well be the film Paramount hoped The Rhythm Section would be. I’m already looking forward to it.
But will Heart of Stone be a new take on the spy thriller, not derivative of Bond, but steer the genre in a new direction? Or will it be another Peppermint, Atomic Blonde, or Salt?
The Ipcress File spawned a few sequels and contributed in part to Michael Caine‘s major success. This flip side of the Bond coin, based on bestselling novels, seemed to strike a chord in a Cold War era.
It may just be a sign of the times that audience tastes have changed. The decline of actual spy thrillers in cinemas, and the huge delays between the flagship Bond films, may mean that the studios, reacting to demand, will aim for bigger, better, and louder. A slow-burn flip-side may simply not be an attractive proposition.
These flip-sides, the anti-Bonds, the alternative stories and viewpoints are a much-needed contrast to the spy blockbusters, and it’s a shame that The Rhythm Section tried to do something different and failed.
Like everything in the movies – maybe it’s best to watch The Rhythm Section yourself and make up your own mind.
Thunderball, The Ipcress File and The Rhythm Section are available on disk and download. Make sure you seek out the widescreen version of The Ipcress File.
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