In 1965, in the middle of the Bond craze, landing between Goldfinger and Thunderball, one of the producers of the 007 series did something really odd.
The Flip Side
Harry Saltzman, Canadian producer based in the UK decided to bring to life a character from noted spy thriller writer Len Deighton, the decidedly not glamourous 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, stepped to the side and presented another anti-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 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 yet… Audiences stayed away.
The film is not really a spy thriller, nor is it 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 definitely an origin story, with potential for further stories now that the heavy lifting has been done.
Yet 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 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, chooses to film much of the film 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, andat least two shady operators, the car chase shot entirely from within the car, or even a late shoot out where the focus is on Stephanie, with the villains a blur in the background.
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 really liked this touch of “realism”.
Despite really enjoying this thriller, there are some things which are puzzling, and possibly reasons for the films poor reviews:
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 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.
The mystery of the mastermind of the bombing is quite mundane and doesn’t quite hit home as you feel it should.
And finally, Stephanie 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 EON Productions you wonder if they wanted more character and EON more action?
But the film looks great, is well shot, the fights are good, and the set pieces well handled.
The box office for the film was very poor. Perhaps the downbeat, almost Euro-style thriller was at too much of a tangent from the female-led thriller EON wanted and the trailer promised.
Stephanie’s “journey” seems too truncated, so perhaps a four-part TV/streaming mini series rather than a movie might have worked better.
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 in reference to 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.
Audiences simply didn’t like what they saw. Despite the action, maybe the film wasn’t as spectacular and over the top as Bond (or even Mission Impossible which Paramount also makes). The film cost $50million, and had a worldwide take of only $6million.
A New Hope?
The just-announced news that Gal Gadot has been confirmed as the star of a new Paramount Pictures movie “Heart of Stone” set in the world of international espionage to rival Bond and Mission Impossible, sounds like a safer bet. As Gadot’s star continues to rise, perhaps the combination of an all out female led action movie with Wonder Woman will work. 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. The flip side of the Bond coin, based on best selling novels seemed to strike a chord.
It’s possible that the decline of actual spy thrillers in cinemas, and the huge delays between Bond films, alongside the rise of the ante-upping Fast and Furious and Mission Impossible movies have changed our tastes. A slow-burn flip-side may simply not be attractive any more.
These flip-sides, the anti-Bonds, the alternative stories and viewpoints are much needed, and it’s a shame that The Rhythm Section tried to do something different and failed.
Like everything in the movies – perhaps give it a watch yourself and make up your own mind.
Thunderball, The Ipcress File and The Rhythm Section are available on disk and download.