'The Rhythm Section': Film Review

Never hits the beat.
1/31/2020

Blake Lively, Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown star in Reed Morano's adaptation of Mark Burnell's best-seller about a woman who becomes an assassin to avenge her family's murder.

Blake Lively receives above-the-title billing in The Rhythm Section, but the profusion of wigs she dons deserve equal credit. Playing the central character in this thriller based on the first book in Mark Burnell's popular Stephanie Patrick series, the actress wears so many headpieces that the proceedings begin to resemble a Carol Burnett Show sketch. It's but one of the many unintentionally comic aspects of the film, which otherwise strains for a seriousness it doesn't deserve.

That solemn tone may perhaps be attributed to producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who have invested their James Bond franchise with similar angst (the once gloriously hedonistic secret agent seems to get more and more depressed with every installment).

It's not that the storyline should be depicted frivolously, since it concerns a drug-addicted British prostitute, Stephanie Patrick (Lively), who becomes transformed into an assassin to avenge the deaths of her entire family in a plane crash caused by terrorists. But the plot elements are so credibility-straining that the only way the film could have worked is if it had leaned into its absurdity. Instead, director Reed Morano (The Handmaid's Tale) opts for a stark grittiness that, while impressively realized, feels at odds with the pulpy material. She also relies a bit too heavily on a soundtrack littered with pop songs, such as "I'm Sorry" and "It's Now or Never," that ironically comment on the proceedings.

The story begins with Stephanie in a desperate state, her life having been ruined by the deaths of her parents and two siblings three years earlier. One day, she's visited by a prospective john who curiously only wishes to talk to her. He turns out to be an "independent journalist" (Raza Jaffrey, Netflix's Lost in Space), as his business card describes him, who informs her that the plane crash was actually caused by a Muslim terrorist, Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), who is still at large.

Stunned by the news, Stephanie galvanizes herself to track Reza down and, armed with a gun, plans to shoot him in a crowded university cafeteria. At the last minute she's unable to go through with it, but she spooks her target to the degree that he goes into hiding. Not long afterward, she forms an alliance with a former M16 agent, Ian Boyd (Jude Law, downplaying his looks and charisma), now living alone in a cabin in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands, who agrees to train her in the deadly arts.

If you're wondering about the film's title, it refers to a lesson imparted to Stephanie by Boyd, who, much like Bond, seems in serious need of anti-depressants. Since Stephanie is a newcomer to the practice of killing people, he advises her to attempt to suppress her fear and anxiety so she can be in better control of herself in dangerous situations. 

After months of unorthodox lessons that include swimming in a freezing lake (apparently, it's good for your fortitude), Stephanie embarks on her mission, posing as an exotic hit woman named Petra Reuter. During the adventures that ensue in exotic locales including Madrid, New York City, Tangiers and Marseille, she comes into contact with such shady characters as a former CIA agent (Sterling K. Brown, minus his trademark soulfulness) turned black-market information peddler and a perverted billionaire (Max Casella).

The screenplay was written by the book's author, who seems to have streamlined it to the point of near-incomprehensibility. As the central character flits from one location to another, outfitted with an infinite variety of wardrobe changes, wigs and accents, viewers will be hard-pressed to know exactly what the hell is happening and why.

Fortunately, there's Lively, adopting a convincing British accent, who almost, but not quite, manages to infuse the convoluted goings-on with enough gravitas to make them convincing. In recent years, she's become quite adept at elevating otherwise subpar material (The Shallows and A Simple Favor being prime examples), and her efforts here are similarly unimpeachable. She handles her frequently physically demanding chores (which at one point resulted in an injury that delayed shooting for several months) with a grit and determination indicating she's more than ready for the sort of action movie franchise this film seems to be desperately striving to kick off.

Production companies: Eon Productions, IM Global
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Max Casella, Richard Brake, Tawfeek Barhom
Director: Reed Morano
Screenwriter: Mark Burnell
Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
Executive producers: Stuart Ford, Greg Shapiro, Mark Burnell, Rob Friedman, Vaishali Mistry, Donald Tang, Simon Williams, Gregg Wilson
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Tim Conroy
Editor: Joan Sobel
Composer: Steve Mazzaro
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Casting: Debbie McWilliams

Rated R, 109 minutes