Do we need a female James Bond? EON productions and Barbara Broccoli felt that we did, and lined up a woke model just in time for it to be crushed at the box office in the months before the pandemic started. The Rhythm Section was cursed by a title that really doesn’t help us get a handle on the female-driven espionage adventures featured here, and despite opening on 3000+ screens in the US, the film barely created a ripple. Although there’s several follow-up books which would have made the bones of a potential franchise, Reed Moreno’s adaptation of Mark Burnell’s novel is more than just a busted pilot; there’s an interesting movie struggling to get out from beneath the shadow of Bond.
Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is a middle-class student who comes off the rails when her brother is killed in an air-crash; while working under heavy depression as a drug-addled prostitute in London, she encounters an investigative journalist who reveals that her brother’s untimely end was caused by terrorists. Patrick is shaken out of her torpor, but accidentally blows the journalist’s cover, leading to his death. Patrick heads to the gladiatorial arenas of the north of Scotland in the hope of finding out more, and finds herself joining forces with B aka Ian Boyd (Jude Law) who helps her get clean and shows her the ropes in terms of basic spy-craft; he then sends her on a series of deadly missions, with the first item on the agenda, catching up with the bomber who blew up the plane.
The Rhythm Section takes its name from the way B teaches Patrick to control her heart and breathing under pressure; these little moments where the audience vicariously learns something through the main character are very much part of the fantasy world of spying. But once Patrick begins to show aptitude, if only to prove B wrong about her, we’re off on the usual whistle-stop tour of world locations (Lisbon, Tangiers, New York) and in a refreshing twist, Patrick isn’t a deadly killing-machine like Nikita or other Luc Besson heroines. She’s got doubts, makes mistakes, and generally adds a personal edge to the punch-ups and car chases, which Moreno stages with one-shot continuous camera moves in the modern style.
The Rhythm Section didn’t connect with audiences at all; it pops up on UK Netflix without fanfare, coasting on star-power rather than the EON pedigree. Yet it’s a more than watchable film, with Law and Lively both giving their cypher characters a little more verisimilitude than normal. The lack of strong villains is a problem, and ultimately the unveiling of the real adversary is underwhelming. But EON had the right idea here; Bond is a male character, and a female version should be re-thought from the ground up. If EON have the rights to the other books, they might want to reboot and start again; with tighter plot-mechanics, The Rhythm Section might still be the prototype for a proper female spy franchise.