With plenty of guns, fistfights and bloodshed, "The Rhythm Section" has all the hallmarks of a classic revenge-thriller — the story of an ordinary person who becomes a highly skilled assassin to track down a murderer. Trailers and posters for the R-rated film promise exactly the kind of violent, action-driven entertainment you might expect from a midwinter release: Think "Taken," starring Liam Neeson, or "Edge of Darkness," with Mel Gibson.
There's one difference, however: The hero of "The Rhythm Section" is a woman.
Blake Lively in the lead as Stephanie Patrick, a Londoner whose parents perished in a downed plane, "The Rhythm Section" offers a rarity: a realistic, female action-heroine who is neither an invincible superhero nor a high-heeled seductress. The film's producer, Barbara Broccoli, is the woman behind EON Productions, of James Bond fame; the director, a Long Islander named Reed Morano, is also female. (Mark Burnell adapted the screenplay from his novel.) When "The Rhythm Section" arrives in theaters Jan. 31, it will mark only the third non-Bond film from EON — not quite "Jane Bond," perhaps, but a female spy film nonetheless.
"We thought it would be empowering to women," Morano says of her film. "It also didn't have to abide by all these unwritten rules that female protagonists have to abide by."
Morano, 42, had a peripatetic childhood: Though born in Nebraska, she spent most of her younger years on Long Island. Even within Long Island, Morano and her family moved around some — there was also a brief stint in New Mexico — but the place she remembers most fondly is Fire Island, where she grew up with four siblings. Her father, Casey Morano, ran Matthew's Seafood House, a dockside eatery that is still owned and operated by members of the family.
"It was magical — we had the run of the whole island," Morano says. "It was kind of a 'Goonies' type of experience. There were five of us, we would play manhunt all over the island. There was no real car traffic and we could walk everywhere and we knew everyone. So, in second grade we were allowed to roam free, which you can't do anywhere else."
Luckily, Morano says, the family moved before island fever set in — to West Islip, where she attended Beach Street Middle School and West Islip High School. By then she had developed a creative streak, writing stories on her mother's Commodore 64 computer and using an old video camera to make short films starring her siblings. When it came time to apply to college, though, she set her sights on studying journalism at Boston University. It was her father, a cinephile with creative goals of his own who encouraged her to apply to film school at New York University.
"I was like, 'What?'" she recalls. "And he was like, 'Yeah, and we can make movies together.'"
That part of the dream never happened; Casey Morano died of a heart attack when Reed was just 18, not long after he and her mother dropped her off at the NYU dorms. After graduating, Morano gravitated toward cinematography and worked on a number of films, including "Winter's Bone," the 2010 drama that provided a young Jennifer Lawrence with her breakout role, and "Kill Your Darlings," a 2013 Beat Generation biopic featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a young Allen Ginsberg.
Soon after, Morano turned to directing, winning an Emmy for her work on Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" and making a name for herself on the indie circuit with such movies as "Meadowland," starring Olivia Wilde as the mother of a missing son, and "I Think We're Alone Now," with Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning as survivors in a post-pandemic world. Meanwhile, Morano had heard that EON was looking for a director for a female-led action film and decided to give it a shot.
"I thought, 'They were the Bond producers, why would they hire me?'" Morano says. But she persisted and eventually secured a meeting with Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of EON co-founder Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, in Los Angeles.
"I had wanted to work with a female director, and I thought Reed was extremely talented," Broccoli says. "She's able to convey intimacy with the characters, and we felt it was really important with the character of Stephanie Patrick." It was also Morano's idea to bring in Lively, who had played a stranded surfer in "The Shallows," an economic little thriller from 2016 whose only other lead role went to a shark. "I was really excited about the combination of these two women," Broccoli says.
The result is a globe-hopping espionage thriller that aims for a real-world feel. Morano delivers at least two single-take action-sequences: One a hand-to-hand combat scene involving Lively and Jude Law (as a rogue intelligence operative), the other a gear-crunching car-chase through the streets of Tangier. Only once does Lively's character play the sexy femme fatale. And as Morano points out, the character almost never smiles — typical for macho male stars, but not for female heroines.
"There's this whole thing with women where they get less leeway to be who they really are," Morano says. "It would be nice to see a woman in a movie in the kind of role I could fantasize about. And walk out of the movie feeling that you're the main character."