East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The Rhythm Section: I’m reading the book, I saw the movie


In the long, too-long list of my interests, I usually put, somewhere halfway through, espionage and spycraft. I grew up in a time when the movie franchise was James Bond, not Star Wars, and the idea that one day the epitome of awesome would be movies based on comic books was laughable. And while I never became a compulsive spy story reader, I have enjoyed the genre a lot, in a very scattershot manner – I read Bond and Modesty Blaise, sure, I tried and ditched SAS, I went through the whole Len Deighton catalog between the end of high school and the start of university, I read my Graham Greene and my Le Carré. I read Trevanian, I know Three Days of the Condor by heart.

A few weeks back I caught the online lynching of Le Carré – dismissed as a lame author without a personal voice, slow, boring and overrated.
I always feel irritated by this sort of thing. Like his work or not, you can’t deny the man’s place and influence in the field. People are getting “I don’t like it” mixed with “It’s rubbish,” in the mistaken belief their personal tastes are the ultimate, objective and definitive Truth. Throw this attitude on the social media, and you’ll get a crowd with torches and pitchforks in no time.

The main bone of contention in that discussion was The Little Drummer Girl – and I had seen the movie of that, the one with Diane Keaton, and liked it. As a reaction – and in consideration that I cannot call myself a Le Carré fan – I went and re-read The Little Drummer Girl, and watched the BBC’s masterful adaptation. And then, as I was on a spy story roll, I got myself a copy of Mark Burnell’s The Rhythm Section. A classical case of fuzzy serendipity, as Burnell’s story, while not Le Carré, does have a hint of the Drummer Girl…
Then, talking with my friend Lucy, I found out the movie based on the book was available online, and I checked it out.
What’s better, for Easter, than a nice serving of moral ambiguity and state-sponsored violence?

Mark Burnell’s novel was published in 1999 and became popular for the wrong reason – because it name checks Osama Bin Laden and talks about middle eastern terrorists using planes to hit western targets. But it’s a little more complicated than that, and it’s turning out to be a solid, neatly-packaged thriller with its own mood and approach to the genre. Not the pinnacle of originality, but good.

The premise: Stephanie Patrick should be on a plane with her family but being, in her own words, a spoiled bitch, she finds an excuse to skip the vacation. The plane crashes in the Atlantic, and a traumatized Stephanie’s life spins out of control, and she sinks into a self-destructive spiral.
Three years later, Stephanie, now calling herself Lisa, is an addict that sells herself to pay for drugs and blot out her psychological pain of having survived her parents and siblings. But when she finds out the plane crash was no accident, but a terrorist attack, she’s shocked into a reaction.
People start dying, and Stephanie decides she’ll get her revenge.
What does she have to lose?

The movie adaptation, written by Burnell himself, is a lot tighter than the novel, and ditches some elements that, in fact, work well on the page but would slow down the movie.
On screen, the story has a neat three-part structure – we watch Stephanie (Blake Lively) as she re-awakens, then her training by a rogue agent (Jude Law), and finally her deployment on the field. Because, and this is interesting, if she wants to get to those that killed her family, she has to find her place in the espionage underworld.

I found the movie interesting, even if I would not use the word “fun” to describe it. I liked very much Lively’s interpretation (I was not aware of any of her previous works) and I think I appreciated the most something that probably contributed to sink the movie when it hit the theatres in January.
Apparently a lot of viewers and a few critics compared this film to Atomic Blonde, or La femme Nikita or a number of other movies about “kickasss female characters”. Character that get in and wreak havoc on their enemies, using every possible weapon and martial art; maybe they get tossed around and brutalized (because we like watching beautiful women being punched in the gut, right?) but they came out on top.
They. Kick. Ass.
But Stephanie is not that kind of character in the movie. While certainly a strong female character, she’s not a highly trained operative. She’s an amateur, and she blunders her way through the movie, suffering the consequences of a number of obvious mistakes. Her fight scenes are actually painful to watch because they are not glamorized, and are not supposed to be glamorized. And while a strong female character, Stephanie is not late-into-the-franchise Sarah Connors. She is much more akin to Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl, or even Joe Turner in Three Days of the Condor – characters lost in a morally-bankrupt maze, with a very limited perception of all the ramifications of what they are caught into.
Espionage has a long tradition of amateurs doing the job – it goes back to Erkine Childers, and John Buchan – and the blundering and improvising are part of the game.

Some critics found the movie bleak and fragmented, and I can see that, and it’s part of what I found interesting. Stephanie’s revenge is a bad idea badly executed, a last ditch attempt by a self-destructing character to find some kind of closure. She’s being used by unseen people pulling her strings, and in the end she probably causes more damage than she ever dreamed of.
Revenge is not a good thing. It’s supposed to be bleak.
And the fractured editing increased – for me – the sense of confusion (designed, and very manageable) that the plot needs to convey.
But it’s hard to sell such a story to an audience that wants “kickass”, a nicely defined moral compass, and probably expects a vicarious sense of elation at the idea that the bad guys will die in a big explosion. It doesn’t go that way.
But this is why I liked it.

So, yes, The Rhythm Section had the worst opening of all time and lost 40 millions to Paramount, but remains a nice small spy thriller that gets a lot of things right, and has a great performance at its core.
Predictable? Yes, probably.
But sometimes the going is more fun than the destination.

And the novel is also good, a solid story with a distinctive voice and an interesting central character. It’s not Le Carré, but that’s not the name on the cover, so it’s OK. It travels at the speed of sound and it hits hard.
It’s entertainment, and quite good at doing its job.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “The Rhythm Section: I’m reading the book, I saw the movie

  1. David’s,
    I am enjoying your blog very much in this lockdown and really appreciate it. Your sense of humor is akin to mine and your wit is spot on.

    I have found that popular authors don’t always have the ideal kind of voice that critics claim they should. LeCarré is a case in point. His voice is that of a writer’s, which is bad mojo these days. In reading him I can almost hear the typewriter clacking away in a boarding room in Spain or Capri. But the stories are, in my opinion, marvelous.
    The same is true of media. You will see no academy awards for comic book movies. Flat stories, cut-out characters—well maybe an award for special effects.
    Which brings up one of my favs: Harrison Ford.
    No one can argue his popularity. But everyone can argue his craft. He was sharp in the Spielberg movies because the roles were easy. He is not well liked by the Academy and will have to suffer a lifetime achievement award.
    But he is entertaining…and like LeCarré spins a great story…


    • Thank you for your comment.
      I am glad that my blog is helping you pass time during this lockdown – this is something I can be proud of.
      And I agree with your point about criticism and popularity. I do tend to focus on stories – I can appreciate the technique, but for me, the story has to work, and be entertaining. If it does, all else is an accessory.


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