The Rhythm Section
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
The Rhythm Section is a thriller with a lot going on. It has mystery, drama, action, a gritty visual style and some solid acting. Yet, somehow, nothing interesting happens. It is so predictable for every moment of its 104-minute runtime (without the end credits). I have called movies derivative before, but you would almost have to be trying to copy this much. I kept waiting for anything surprising or original to happen; even a throwaway gesture would have been welcome. It never came. That is unfortunate because the production is fine and the central performance from Blake Lively is convincing (or as convincing as possible in this jumpy screenplay). Though it is in service of a movie not really worth the effort. As soon as it ended, I could not stop myself from wondering what the point of it was.
Stephanie’s family was killed in a plane crash. This sent her into a spiral, leading to drugs and prostitution. Three years later, she is given a reason to live when a journalist tells her that the crash was no accident; there was a bomb on the plane. She seeks out the man’s informant, a former MI-6 agent, and begins plotting her revenge.
The Rhythm Section is based on the 1999 novel by Mark Burnell. Interestingly, this adaptation was also written by Burnell. I have no idea how faithful it is to the source material (I would guess “fairly”). However, it does a poor job of crafting compelling characters or a plot as complex as it is supposed to be. Everyone who is introduced has a very obvious purpose, which the screenplay never tries to hide. As far as the story goes, it just kind of sits there. I understood Stephanie’s motivations but, once her quest begins, things basically fall into her lap. She has to do a lot less work than you would expect. The mystery is neither mysterious nor dramatic. Perhaps the transition from page to screen was too much for this particular story to handle.
One thing it has going in its favor is a strong visual style, establishing a grim world of violence and distrust. Director Reed Morano quickly sets up the hopelessness of her protagonist’s situation. There is no happiness or relief here. Just pain. The action scenes are not CGI spectaculars full of athletic choreography. They are intimate, desperate and physical. She is not a soldier or a gymnast. She is a woman who thinks vengeance is the only thing that can make her feel whole again. Morano stays consistent with her approach, maintaining an effective mood. It did not get me to care, but it did make me believe she is capable of something pretty good with better material.
The other aspect that kept me from getting bored was the performance of Blake Lively as Stephanie. We see her in a flashback as happy and loving, yet the woman we are following is a shell. There is no warmth to her. That is the way this character should be. She is a victim, not a hero. There is an intensity to her I have never seen from Lively. She usually uses her likability, either in a romance of some kind or, in the case of 2018’s fun dark comedy/thriller A Simple Favor, to hide a dark side. Here, she is all sharp edges. It is a change of pace, showing she can definitely do more when given the chance.
The two major supporting roles go to Jude Law as her mentor in spying and Sterling K. Brown as an operative who can possibly help her get to her target. Law has a couple of okay scenes before he disappears for a while. Brown is charming despite not having much of a character to play. They are both decent, but Lively is the only one who impresses.
The Rhythm Section is style over substance. There are positive elements to the production that are unable overcome the fact that this feels like a ton of other spy/assassin/revenge stories. It is not actively bad, merely meandering and purposeless, with a conclusion that is never in doubt. It is an uphill battle Morano and Lively cannot win, even with the good work they put in. 2¼ out of 5
Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick
Jude Law as Boyd
Sterling K. Brown as Marc Serra
Directed by Reed Morano
Screenplay by Mark Burnell