This movie kicks ass. I sat here for a while trying to figure out the right way to start this review, and couldn’t think of a better opener than to simply state the truth. THE RHYTHM SECTION is the newest spy-thriller from James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. It’s directed by cinematographer Reed Morano, and stars Blake Lively, Jude Law, and Sterling K. Brown. With inventive, fast-paced action sequences, and a heroine grounded in real depth and emotion, it stands tall against typical, run-of-the-mill spy films. Morano’s knack for visual storytelling is on full display, while strong performances from the leading cast help to solidify the film as one of the best spy-thrillers to come along since Atomic Blonde. While the film is much more serious and stoic than I had originally anticipated, I found myself completely enveloped in the plot and characters, and totally arrested by the camera work.
Based on the novel by author Mark Burnell, THE RHYTHM SECTION tells the story of Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), a young woman who has her life upended by tragedy after her entire family is killed in a plane crash. In the aftermath of the disaster, Stephanie turns to a life of drugs and prostitution. Numb to the world, she drifts in and out of consciousness, reliving somber memories of happier days with her family. This is her sad existence until she is visited by a reporter who claims to have proof that the plane crash that killed her family was instead a deliberate and planned terrorist attack. Stephanie is taken in by the reporter, who informs her the bombmaker who constructed the device used on the plane is walking free in London—left alone by authorities who wish to find the larger terrorist network he is connected to. The reporter receives his intel from a mysterious ex-MI6 agent living in seclusion in Scotland.
As Stephanie becomes more involved with the investigation, she grows hungry for revenge. Desperate for further leads, she tracks down the reporter’s informant in Scotland—a man named Iain Boyd (Jude Law). Boyd’s past is shrouded in mystery, and at first, he is reluctant to help Stephanie—deeming her too weak to stand a chance at exacting her revenge. Determined to prove herself, Stephanie cleans herself up and begins training with Boyd for several months on-end. Boyd trains her in hand-to-hand combat, weaponry, and precision driving—all skills that will come into play later in the film, and all of which Stephanie must learn to master in order to stand a fighting chance. After her training is complete, Boyd connects Stephanie with another ex-agent named Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown). Serra acts as a liaison through which Stephanie receives hit contracts. Each contract she takes on is a target who is somehow involved in the terrorist cell responsible for the death of her family. All of this is building toward Stephanie identifying the mysterious leader of the cell, who the authorities only know as codename “U17.”
Therein lies the real mystery to the entire plot, and while certain elements of the story aren’t necessarily fresh, they’re presented in such a bold and exciting way, you forget that you’ve likely seen or heard another story like this before. Stephanie is not James Bond. In many ways, she’s a superior character, and certainly a more fleshed-out one. While the film will inevitably draw comparisons to the Bond franchise given the producers behind it, it would be a disservice to say THE RHYTHM SECTION is anything like Bond. It is without question its own film entirely, and Stephanie Patrick is for sure her own character. The film’s first act is deliberately slow—taking its time to establish Stephanie, and to make her feel relatable and real. Even after all of her training, Stephanie frequently screws up or struggles to perform a contract perfectly. She is deeply damaged emotionally, and while she’s hungry for vengeance, she’s still very much human. Killing isn’t easy for her and is sometimes impossible. We feel the emotional weight of every life she takes, and we see the trauma it causes reflected in Lively’s powerful performance. While Lively’s English accent is at times questionable, her commitment to the role is undeniable. Performing all of her own fight choreography (a decision which practically destroyed one of her hands), and ripping through each scene like a hellion, Lively steals the show regardless of the accent flaws. Jude Law also turns in a fun and witty performance as the rough and rugged mentor, helping Stephanie toughen up to become the ultimate assassin.
And then there’s Reed Morano. While she cut her teeth filming movies like Kill Your Darlings, and The Skeleton Twins, her talents as a filmmaker shine brightly in this film. The action sequences in this movie are to die for and are the crowning achievement of the whole affair. Though they’re used sparingly, these are the moments that will stay with you long after the credits roll. A breath-taking, single-shot chase sequence will have your heart racing, and the shoot-outs feel more real than most action films make them seem. I can only hope that Morano resumes her promising directing career, especially in the realm of action movies. Her style is a much-needed breath of originality in a stale and flat genre.
Ideally, there will be more Stephanie Patrick films, and we’ll get to see Lively and Morano paired up once more. Films of this nature are paramount in today’s political and social climate. The magic of film is that everyone has their own unique way of perceiving and telling a story. Filmmakers like Morano supply a much-needed female perspective on the action genre, and I only hope that the box office returns for THE RHYTHM SECTION will help send a valuable message to the decision-makers in cinema. If you have the chance to catch it in theaters, I can’t recommend it enough—it is without question an action film made for the big screen. While it’s not James Bond, it’s something better—it’s something new. I can only hope we’ll get more of Stephanie Patrick very soon. THE RHYTHM SECTION opens in theaters on Friday, January 31, 2020.