Every action-driven spy thriller that doesn’t star a certain suave, British secret agent eventually faces the same inevitable question: How does it stack up against the latest James Bond caper? So that quandary might be doubled when the production company behind said thriller is none other than Eon, keeper of the 007 flame for nearly 60 years.
It’s odd to reference a studio marque at the top of a film review, but The Rhythm Section merits an exception: It’s just Eon’s third non-Bond production since 1962, but an effort that — at least conceptually — could be somewhat daring, while not straying too far from decades of comfortable, mostly successful turf.
Regrettably, though, this adaptation of a 2000 novel by Mark Burnell is neither fresh or particularly inventive. Little of the fault can go to Blake Lively, who stars as a young woman named Stephane Patrick — the protagonist of Burnell’s four-novel series — who falls into a life of drug addiction and sex work after the rest of her family is among the victims of an airliner bombing carried out by an Islamist terror cell. The opening shows Stephanie mid-mission, then gives way to Stephanie at her lowest, until she’s happened upon by a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) investigating the bombing.
That meeting sets Stephanie on a vengeance streak against anyone who had anything to do with the bombing, a course that eventually collides her with an ex-, maybe still active, MI6 agent (Jude Law), who instead of directing her to clinical help, teaches her to be an assassin. A training montage or two later, and Stephanie’s off to settle the score, in a mission that also involves a former CIA operative (Sterling K. Brown) and a sleazy billionaire (Max Casella).
Lively’s turns in movies like the The Shallows or The Town showed her skill in tightly wound thrillers, and she does her best here to elevate a script that Burnell adapted from his own novel. Once Stephanie is sent on her revenge mission, Lively nails the coolness with which any globetrotting assassin would need to operate. But the movie can’t help point out its own flaws, with Law’s seasoned spy noting that she’d need years to be fully skilled — though it takes just a few months — or literally telling Stephanie that she is a cliche.
A deeper problem still is that director Reed Morano, who ably directed the first few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, isn’t quite sure what kind of spy movie The Rhythm Section should be. It’s got a Bondian itinerary — Madrid, Morocco, the south of France — but also veers between nods at the Bourne series’s claustrophobic fighting style and attempts to be as stylish as a Luc Besson jaunt. The action’s at its best when Morano allows a fight or a car chase to play out in a longer take, but repeated attempts to play that card only further reveal the movie’s self-seriousness.
And though advanced to the present day, the 20 years that’ve passed since Burnell first published his novel make his plot devices rather hoary. A cliche-riddled hunt for a bomb-maker is an adventure a late 20th-century Bond might’ve gone on, though that’d be a bit of fun, at least. Instead, a strong cast can’t do enough to overcome their producers’ half-hearted attempt to go beyond their comfort zone.