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MRQE Top Critic

Spirits of the Dead

A freakish triple-header from the fevered brains of Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellin —Breck Patty (DVD review...)

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The Rhythm Section maintains a steady beat in this deftly told thriller.

The Chorus

The name's Stephanie. Not Lisbeth. Not Nikita.
The name’s Stephanie. Not Lisbeth. Not Nikita.

With Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli — the duo behind the ongoing success of the legendary James Bond franchise — serving as producers, many consider this to be a stab at creating another franchise. It shouldn’t be.

The Rhythm Section is a solid thriller that gets a lot of the details right; a lot of the emotions and interactions of its female protagonist, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline), feel natural. Stephanie is a well-drawn character and the story — a revenge tale — is based on Mark Burnell’s novel of the same title. Burnell also adapted his own book into the screenplay.

But something interesting happened in the transition from page to screen.

It’s a little troubling to dig into the book. It turns out it is indeed the first in a series of novels revolving around the adventures of Stephanie Patrick. A queasy feeling sinks in reading the description of the book: “Nikita. Lisbeth. Now meet Stephanie.”

No. Don’t go there. Don’t put Stephanie Patrick in the same Death Wish bucket as Marie Clement (the “Nikita” of the classic Luc Besson movie La Femme Nikita and its small-screen iterations) and Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels and sundry productions).

Stephanie Patrick works as a singular character in a singular situation in search of closure. It’s strange, then, to see the movie unfold in this train of thought while the book takes a different bent, “...when Stephanie is approached and recruited by an extremely covert intelligence organization...”

Wait. Let’s get that straight. It’s not just a covert intelligence organization. It’s an extremely covert intelligence organization. That reeks of cliché. Even worse. That stinks.

The Refrain

As the movie unfolds, it’s Stephanie who makes a concerted effort to unravel the mystery surrounding the crash of Flight 147, with her family onboard. Stephanie is wracked with guilt; her family changed plans and took this flight in hopes Stephanie would join them. She declined.

That cruel twist of fate leads Stephanie down a path of self-destruction. Drugs. Prostitution. It’s an aimless life on the streets of London. Until a journalist (a real journalist, a guy searching for truth, not a talking-points-driven, agenda-based activist twisting media into self-serving purposes) enters her life. That’s Proctor (Raza Jaffrey, the current Lost in Space series on Netflix).

Proctor’s been sleuthing, following the life story of each passenger. And he’s concluded the plane was taken down by a bomb with ties to a man who’s currently walking the streets of London and living a life of seeming anonymity.

As events unfold, it’s on Stephanie to find the resolve to change the course of her life and seek out this bomber who’s still enjoying life’s freedoms. It’s on Stephanie to prove her mettle and gain the acceptance of Ian Boyd (Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes), an MI-6 agent who’s on the outs with that “extremely covert” intelligence organization.

That line of narrative is so much more interesting than the cliché of being roped into yet another spy operation. That’s the terrain of so many failed series, including box office duds like Jennifer Lawrence’s Red Sparrow.

The Licks

The journalist's web (Raza Jaffrey)
The journalist’s web (Raza Jaffrey)

Blake Lively, one of the world’s most beautiful women, goes all-in as a down-and-out girl, strung out on drugs and selling herself to fund her bad habits as a way of escaping her pain. Lively pulls off both the vulnerable and the venerable. As Proctor puts it, Stephanie’s one of the bomber’s victims, she’s just not dead yet. She could’ve had any life, but she chose the path of least resistance and even less reward.

With that in mind, as the story moves around the world to sites in London, Loch Frey, Tangier, Madrid, New York and Marseille, it’s interesting to watch Stephanie’s character and narrative arc. Even the title, The Rhythm Section, carries with it an underlying notion of life outside the world of spies, espionage, murder and other mayhem: the heart is the drums and breathing is the bass.

Stephanie grows tougher, more resolved, more skilled. But there’s something in the movie’s final frames that should say it all — that Stephanie’s found her path out of misery. Ian Boyd? Yeah, he’s back on the ins with MI-6, but he doesn’t seem to be any different from the first moment Stephanie — all on her own — tracked him down in the remote countryside of Scotland. He’s stuck.

Stephanie’s got herself unstuck and she can, once again, choose any life.

Turning this narrative into a series would be a disservice to what could — and should — be read (pun intended) as a unique movie experience. It’s like the complaints that came out of Tim Burton’s Batman, in which Bruce Wayne ties the murder of his parents to Jack Napier and subsequently kills Jack Napier by way of his transformation into the Joker. With the murder of his parents resolved — so the argument goes — Bruce has lost his incentive to become that symbol of justice for all.

So, too, here. Stephanie shouldn’t be taken back into the suck in the name of making a series out of this. Throw away the books. Let director Reed Morano’s work stand alone as a tribute to a woman turning her life around and reclaiming it as her own. That’s the kind of subtext the typical spy thriller would dare not tread.