Beware spoilers for The Rhythm Section, and be sure to read the full review by Oktay Ege Kozak here.
The Rhythm Section is destined to be remembered (if it’s remembered at all) in the shadow of producer Barbara Broccoli’s other movie this year focused on a globetrotting assassin, part of the franchise for which she’s served as a producer in some capacity since 1987’s The Living Daylights. That’s not a fair thing to freight any movie with, but here it’s unavoidable.
In ways big and small, The Rhythm Section tries to move in the same spaces as the James Bond films while giving the tropes of the genre a more nuanced spin and allowing its female protagonist underlying elements of fallibility and mortality that, try as they might, the Bonds have never truly allowed their cocky hero. Paste’s review was favorable, but audiences apparently didn’t go for it. It’s too bad: The movie’s well served by Blake Lively’s performance and Reed Morano’s direction, feeling as if they could have been setting up a character for a return.
It’s wrong to call The Rhythm Section an attempt at doing a female James Bond, or anything so facile—it’s definitely not. It’s still an action thriller where shady government types refer to one another by number as they plot to use sex to assassinate each other in locales with exotic architecture. There are any number of reasons why it tanked, chief among them, most likely, that Paramount decided to slate it for the end of January. If that’s the best that studios are willing to treat a sincere attempt from the woman who has been producing James Bond films since the ’90s, it’s worth asking what warrants better.
“You just get disheartened when you get people from a generational point of view going, ‘It can’t be.’ And it really turns out to be the color of my skin. And then if I get it and it didn’t work, or it did work, would it be because of the color of my skin? That’s a difficult position to put myself into when I don’t need to.” — Idris Elba on the perennial anticipation he might be cast as James Bond, in an interview with Vanity Fair
Speculation has swirled around Idris Elba’s eligibility to be the next man to fill the tux for years, all the more pronounced considering current-and-now-longest-running Bond Daniel Craig perpetually seems as if he’s on the cusp of simply walking away from the obligation. The racist bullshit Elba has faced has been something to see, and it’s easy to dismiss a lot of it on the sheer degree of the assets and the merits that Elba would bring to the role. He’s got the physicality of somebody the government would train to kill people. He can play a Baltimore drug consigliere or a morally compromised London detective; his acting range just within animated features stretches from king of the jungle to stern authority figure to comic relief.
So why not have him be another character? Why “take away” Bond from the group he’s been a part of since the beginning? Why not write your own?
“It doesn’t dishearten me. It makes me feel quite sad for some people because their opinions, they’re not even from a mean place—they’re actually from a sad place. It’s not about me. People are reacting to an idea, which has nothing to do with my life.” — Lashana Lynch, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, on people who have lashed out at her for portraying 007 in No Time to Die
As the film industry has moved more and more toward a harsh dichotomy between big franchises and tiny indie films—as the blockbuster has supplanted nearly all else besides horror in earning potential—there’s an attendant need for studios to hedge against any kind of financial risk. That has translated into more and more sequels, remakes, reboots, adaptations—any kind of known property at all to ensure that there will be some segment of moviegoers who are guaranteed to go see it. The oldest and most established characters in the comic book world, the literary world, the film world, the ones now seeing a nostalgic resurgence, are all white and male, and these are apparently the only stories that are literally worth telling, by the calculus of major studios.
Try to recast Ghostbusters as female and tell a completely different story, and the discourse turns to sexist garbage. The “Get Woke Go Broke” contingent don’t believe a stormtrooper can be black. But let’s, for the sake of argument, engage with the bad faith people, and accept that people of color and women reimagining major cultural touchstones to look like them is somehow just as bad as when Hollywood whitewashes a story. If minority or female filmmakers are going to write their own new canon, what would they need to compete with the established franchises?
Barbara Broccoli is the 59-year-old scion of the Bond film franchise—daughter to Albert Broccoli, who steered it from its inception until his death shortly after 1995’s GoldenEye. She’s led the family business through two well-regarded revivals of a franchise that began when she was a toddler. Bond, in case you haven’t forgotten, is one of film’s oldest and most revered franchises. Blake Lively is a well-known actress, with Jude Law backing her up.
The Rhythm Section is taut and tense where Bond is cavalier, the killings and violence alarming and raw where Bond’s are flip. Its hero grapples with the impossible burden of killing, even when her targets are the absolute dregs of humanity. Morano and her actors commit to these ideas. I thought the movie was good.
None of that translated into a film its studio wanted to adequately support or audiences wanted to see.
Kenneth Lowe is much more human than you thought he’d be. You can follow him on Twitter or read more at his blog.