Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) has had a rough three years, anyone who’s experienced what she had to would’ve gone a path as dark as hers. Once a proud member of a moderate-class British family, now a victim of total tragedy after the tragic murder of her clan in a plane crash, resorting to drugs and prostitution to numb the pain. Stuck in a spiral of pain where no healing can be found. That is, until singular shreds of evidence discovered by an amateur journalist (Raza Jeffrey) can prove the crash was not an accident. More the work of low-rent terrorism? That’s the question Stephanie will dare to answer, leaving a violent, ho-hum trail of revenge behind in The Rhythm Section, a film perhaps better expressed on the written page than on screen, where its clear datedness is rather unlikely to be overlooked.
Patrick is portrayed as the odd cross between “fiery maven of malice” and “timid hesitant flower”. She wants to be the former but hesitates at every turn of her crash course in becoming an optimal assassin. She makes it obvious from the start “she is not a killer”. Leave it to her persistent, stumbled-upon trainer, the cocky, subdued Boyd (Jude Law) to coax any sort of change. Her greatest takeaway from this former MI6 operative is a great amount of focus while gaining the gumption to kill, comparing one’s respiratory system to a big band, the heart being the drumbeat by which she’ll run, her breathing the bass sound by which her actions take a melodic turn. Both are apparent skills she’ll slowly hone on a rampant eight-month journey taking her from London to Tangier with side stops in Marseille and Manhattan and meeting some rather colorful folks all tied (vaguely) into the conspiracy, CIA operative Serra (a dashing and well-placed Sterling K. Brown) among them.
Director Reed Morano, whose two previous films, coupled with her work on The Handmaid’s Tale have made some decent waves, makes what could amount to a somewhat slapdash mainstream feature debut with otherwise high expectations to launch the next great, gritty espionage thriller franchise. Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the pair responsible for maintaining the validity of the official 007 canons have attached their names as producers, which goes to show how much trust was placed in finally unlocking the formula for a girl-power equivalent to Mr. Bond. Regrettably, this wasn’t it. Like many, it came very close, but I was convinced that it couldn’t quite crack the code.
What we get instead is a somewhat softer, uncontrolled spin on an aesthetic only touched once in recent memory, through Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde. The difference here is Lively, while she evokes plenty of charm and heightened clarity lacks a certain action movie charisma. The idea of feeling squeamish around a weapon only detracts her case more than help. The film’s script, penned by Mark Burnell readapting from the first in his series of novels, is nothing short than a mild collection of detractions causing our tale, and our heroine to be held back in time. In that we fail to break new ground, left to settle for an action thriller spring boarding between underwhelming character development, nail-biting fight scenes, and random flashbacks that allow for plenty of detail on Patrick’s personal life, and the impact of that impending disaster.
It’s just that none of these elements can seamlessly dodge, bob, or weave with one another to complete the story, leaving one too many holes to fill. Among them, Law’s purpose as a sufficient trainer (“handler” would’ve been more appropriate for long-term franchise planning). He’s just as skittish, tensely passive as she is, his own backstory swept under the rug while breaking her hesitation on the range and in the water. They somewhat need each other to become better spies, and yet they still don’t come anywhere near being the real legit deal that the best franchises could be proud of putting a face to.
Lively is still a delight to watch as her character arc continues to build, and build, though not quite carrying a finite stopping point. As if the false hope for a sequel couldn’t be curtailed at least once. She grows her confidence while on the job, remaining as plucky and sophisticated as when working with Paul Feig in the comically dark A Simple Favor. All of which, not necessarily a bad thing. Until one puts into the account the series of events she’s thrust into, following its own off-beat rhythm. One whose monotony can only be broken up by Law’s interjecting, Brown’s deliberate dramatic weight, a few car chases sprinkled in for no clear purpose. And Max Casella appearing all-too-briefly as a mark for Patrick, living a double life; he remains highly underrated and underutilized; casting directors, please take note.
The Rhythm Section could easily maintain a sour enough taste in my mouth that will linger through the rest of 2020. Knowing that for every other letdown that comes my way in this calendar year, this one could last a bit longer in my otherwise inconsistent memory. Morano proves capable as a steady action director, while Law and Lively build their craft as adequately as possible, given the circumstances of a poorly executed script that will barely take a paying audience anywhere, if lucky. At least January will end with this film in wide release, and before long the cinematic jackpot can soon be approached. Most this film can expect in its future could be a few re-watches on basic cable in the next decade. Again, if it’s lucky enough. (C; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Rhythm Section opens in wide release this weekend; rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use; 109 minutes.