It’s long been said there are no new ideas. No new plots, no new characters, no new forms of evil or sexual peccadilloes—somebody, at some point in history, has been there and done that.
I was reminded of this recently while watching The Rhythm Section (2020) on Amazon Prime. It is based on Mark Burnell’s novel of the same name, and he wrote the screenplay. This movie stars Blake Lively and Jude Law, and while a thriller, technically it is a revenge tale.
Blake Lively’s whole family dies when the airplane they were on is bombed by terrorists. When we meet her she is a bruised, drug-using whore, emotionally unable to deal with her loss, and a reporter comes to her with information—he’s figured out who is responsible for the bomb.
Lively tracks down Jude Law, who is a former intelligence agent. He gets her clean, gives her field training, and then when she’s really still not ready (but not a complete wreck) sends her out after the people responsible for the bombing, as he’s invested in their demise as well. To some extent the results are realistic—she barely knows what she’s doing, but through luck and the randomness you get sending an amateur into a professional’s world she gets things done.
Both Law and Lively do their best with the material, but unfortunately they don’t have much to work with. At first when you meet Lively’s character, you hate her. By the end of the movie you don’t like her, you just don’t hate her any more. There are two bad guys. One you know very little about, so the climactic fight between him and Lively is a bit underwhelming, as you’ve got two characters you don’t have much invested in. And the ultimate bad guy is someone the filmmakers have almost sprung on you, so you have almost nothing invested in his demise.
The movie is just not that entertaining, and as a result it’s currently got a 5.3/10 rating on IMDB, and barely rates that. The only likeable character is Jude Law’s, and unfortunately he’s just got a minor supporting role.
Now let’s take a look at The Amateur (1981), starring John Savage. Based on the book of the same name by Robert Littell, who also wrote the screenplay (and enjoyed quite a bit of success as a Cold War thriller author). The subtitle on the book? A Novel of Revenge. Savage plays a CIA cryptographer whose wife is murdered during a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in West Germany, and he decides to go after her killers. Does any of this sound familiar? ‘Eerily reminiscent’, I believe is the phrase.
Savage wants his wife’s killers brought to justice, but is given the run-around by official sources. So he gathers classified and damaging information about the CIA and uses it to blackmail them into letting him go after the terrorists himself. The CIA sends him to field training, more to put him off while they search for the classified data he’s hidden than really help him, but eventually he demands to be sent in, to Czechoslovakia, behind the iron curtain.
He is a total amateur, but because of that he behaves in a way the professionals don’t expect, and so enjoys some success avoiding betrayals and bad guys, much like Lively. Unlike with The Rhythm Section, you actually develop some feelings for Savage’s character. The Amateur is populated with a lot of very familiar faces—Christopher Plummer, and veteran character actors Ed Lauter, Arthur Hill, and a young Nicholas Campbell. There is also a huge plot twist at the end of the movie. While still not a top-tier, this Cold War-era spy thriller is superior to The Rhythm Section in just about every way except the acting ability of the leads…while sharing an eerily similar basic plotline.
The books came out 38 years apart, the movies 39. I’m not accusing Mark Burnell of plagiarizing or even getting inspiration from the plot of The Amateur when he wrote The Rhythm Section. I think there’s a good chance he’d never even heard of the book or movie. It’s just that there are only so many stories to be told in the world….