Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
“The Rhythm Section” is neither a full-throated action thriller nor a serious drama that explores the relationship between revenge and grief. Director Reed Morano’s film, in which she works from a script by novelist Mark Burnell, tries to be both of those things at once. It’s an uneven approach that fails to carry a melodious tune.
The failure, though, isn’t an uninteresting one. The movie is well cast. Blake Lively gives her all here as the downtrodden Stephanie Patrick. We meet Stephanie in London, where she’s been living in a brothel and working as a prostitute. She looks terrible—dirty, bruised, and her character is a heroin user. Stephanie is the sole surviving member of her family, who were killed in a plane crash three years earlier.
It’s striking to see Lively in such a pathetic position. And this look continues almost throughout the film—the character adopts a scruffy haircut and appears in various combinations of ill-fitting, goodwill clothing. It’s unpleasant, a mood that permeates this irksome narrative. Unlike what David Leitch did with similar material in his 2017 film “Atomic Blonde,” director Morano has decided not to glamorize Stephanie’s transition from wounded soul to international contract killer. “The Rhythm Section” could easily be called the anti-“Atomic Blonde.”
Stephanie’s no superhero, but her misadventures put her in potentially heroic situations. What confounds is that this movie refuses to allow her to be the hero. It’s just not entertaining to watch the central character stumble through the action.
On the other end of the spectrum is the mystery and drama. When Stephanie, the abused prostitute, is visited by a journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), she’s told that the plane crash that left her an orphan was a terrorist attack. Proctor wants her assistance to expose the killers, one of whom is living in London. But when things go badly, Stephanie tracks down Proctor’s mysterious source (played by Jude Law), who’s merely called “B.”
It is at this point where Stephanie’s internal turmoil, battle with addiction, and self-abuse switch off. Her personality changes on a dime.
After a harsh detox, B (I don’t think he’s ever given a proper name) agrees to train Stephanie so that she can hunt the terrorists and kill them all. Over months, she learns the tricks of the trade, guns, and hand-to-hand combat. But instead of the perfunctory montage in which the hero is born, Stephanie awkwardly adjusts to her new career.
And because she doesn’t radically change physically over time, the viewer gets no real sense of her development. There’s running, and a scene in which she navigates a small obstacle course with a handgun. All the while, B remains at arm’s length, never really imparting in any profound way the knowledge acquired during his years with MI6.
B does teach Stephanie to shoot and encourages her to feel the rhythm of her heart when squeezing the trigger. He likens it to music. This is undoubtedly where the film gets its title, but it made me wonder if a key detail from the novel was left out. Was Stephanie a musician before her family’s death and her descent into madness? No matter, she’s now a girl with only one thing in mind: murder.
It’s when Stephanie enters the field on a mission that the uneven nature of “The Rhythm Section” becomes obvious. She’s not ready for prime-time, as a target in a wheelchair gives her trouble. And after barely making it out of that job, Stephanie’s life expectancy is an open question.
One early action sequence didn’t sit well with me. After clumsily killing her mark, Stephanie makes an error-filled escape. And like so much in the film, the action is captured in medium closeup. Stephanie’s face is close to the camera while the bulk of the action takes place slightly out of focus behind and around her. The visual scope is never wide enough or in focus enough to appreciate the gravity of the terrible situation.
The effort, by excellent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (see “12 Years a Slave” and “Widows”), is to place the viewer in the personal space of the hero. This intimate approach will be familiar to viewers who readily watch GoPro videos. I had to look away as the lack of stabilization with hand-held shots was disorienting.
But the visual scope would be acceptable if the narrative had decided what kind of story it wanted to tell. Since the brutal action sequences are not any fun, you’d expect the movie to be a hard-hitting drama with thriller elements (like, say, “The Constant Gardener”). “The Rhythm Section” isn’t a hard-hitting mystery drama; instead, this movie leans into the obvious action thriller components leaving the drama and mystery unresolved.
And as Stephanie gets her balance as a proper killer, she begins to exhibit a swagger associated with action heroes. The broken woman that we initially met and even sympathized with is gone. So, too, was my connection with the characters and story.
“The Rhythm Section” is not thrilling enough to give viewers a charge and lacks an emotional punch.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com