The Rhythm Section — whose title refers to the equilibrium our souls should maintain in order to carry out an execution (or something like that) — should’ve been a fun and raucous affair. It’s got the Bond franchise producers (Barbara Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson), an exciting new director who helmed a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (Reed Morano), and a comely lead in Blake Lively, who’s demonstrated an ability to disappear into problematic characters (A Simple Favor). Mix in some exotic locations and a potentially interesting narrative about international terrorism and British Intelligence, and you just might think to yourself, “Finally, a female Bond!” Nope, afraid not. The Rhythm Section features a whirlpool of talent, but it twirls into a void. Such a waste.
Armed with a convincing British accent, Blake Lively gives it her best as Stephanie Patrick, a former Oxford University prodigy who becomes a crack-smoking hooker after her family is killed in a plane crash. The actress is forced to make this backstory credible in the first 10 minutes, and that’s too much to ask of any actor. Stripping Lively of her beauty and applying sores and a bad haircut helps the believability factor of her character’s debacle, but the script isn’t as convincing as her makeup.
When a fired-up journalist (Raza Jaffrey) informs Stephanie that the plane crash that killed her parents wasn’t an accident, but an act of terrorism, she sets out for vengeance. She starts by tracking down Ian Boyd (an effective Jude Law), a former MI6 operative who lives in the Scottish Highlands like a bearded gnome. For no discernible reason, Boyd trains our heroine in hopes of making her an undercover operative as well. These scenes are played out in an unintentionally laughable montage of Rocky-like vignettes. Soon, Stephanie sheds the heroin-chic guise and travels to places like Spain and Tangier, carrying a gun, kicking ass and speaking in monotonic cadences to other underground operatives (Sterling K. Brown) like a seasoned agent. We’d happily go along for such an implausible journey if the film didn’t take itself so darn seriously. But Holy Moses, James Bond would blush with the amount of sincerity in Rhythm’s universe. Give these filmmakers some dry martinis please!
Mark Burnell’s script (based on his novel) yearns to be both an edgy action flick and a heavy drama. But unlike, say, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which achieves this objective, Rhythm’s narrative can’t handle the balance and ends up upending itself. Frankly, with a story this histrionic, they should’ve dropped the bathos and gone straight for the explosions (a dash of wit could’ve helped too).
Choreographer-turned-director Reed Morano is adept at staging some solid action sequences (a single-shot car chase, for example), but she overcompensates on the script’s flaws with distracting camera tricks. In almost every scene, the filmmakers struggle to envelop us in a pernicious, unforgiving world characterized by entangled morals. Instead, The Rhythm Section is pure panache and empty flair. We’re talking shaky handheld cameras, bleached-out frames, spectral voices echoing in the periphery, unnecessary flash-forwards and a soundtrack that goes from stock action bombast to snippets of The Velvet Underground or Elvis (oh cool, they’re hip). It’s a potpourri of tactics, which ends up blotting out any discernible character or unique sensibility.
There are worse movies than The Rhythm Section out there (check your January listings; it’s the time of year when studios dump their odds and ends into theaters). However, even awful films like Cats possess a unique character. It’s almost more egregious when a movie is merely adequate. Blake Lively has the goods, and she deserves better.