On paper, The Rhythm Section should be good, or at the very least fun. It’s a globe-trotting espionage-thriller that boasts sex scenes, car chases, a vengeance quest, and smoking hot stars Blake Lively, Jude Law, and Sterling K. Brown. Plus, it’s helmed by cinematographer turned Emmy-winning director Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale). But there’s a big red flag waving ahead of its theatrical bow. Paramount Pictures bumped the pic off its 2019 schedule to the dumping ground of January, where it’s playing alongside such groan-inducing dreck as The Gentlemen, The Grudge, The Turning, and Dolittle. I’m sorry to report that’s exactly where The Rhythm Section belongs.
Written by Mark Burnell, The Rhythm Section centers on Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), a young woman that clunky exposition dumps tell us was once the top of her class at Oxford but is now a “junkie prostitute” wasting her days away being strung out and hired out in London. Her fall from grace came after her parents and siblings died in a plane crash, leaving her to self-sabotage as a means of grappling with her survivor guilt. However, she’ll get a new lease on life—or at least a better outlet for her rage—when an intrepid journalist (Raza Jaffrey) shows up in her brothel, telling her it wasn’t an accident the plane crashed. It was a terrorist attack that’s being covered up. Seeking the truth gets her tangled up with bombmakers, terrorists, assassins, and former intelligence officers, as she sets forth to kill all responsible for her family’s demise.
This is Burnell’s first produced screenplay, and it shows. The Rhythm Section is so overstuffed with tired spy movie cliches that it is painfully predictable. The vengeance-seeking heroine must begin in the low point of degradation that is a squalid life on the streets. Playing the steely secret agent who becomes an unlikely ally, a sneering Jude Law spits at Stephanie, “Drugs. Prostitution. That’s not a tragedy, that’s a cliche!” Yet this seeming self-awareness doesn’t lead the film anywhere fresh or unexpected. It’s just lampshading. Like so many she-spies before her, Stephanie will be trained in the arts of shooting, fighting, and masquerading as a high-class escort. She will jet-set around the globe chasing down various bad guys as cheap setups for action sequences with exotic backdrops. She will get in over her head and be double-crossed! She—despite being a strikingly beautiful woman—will attempt to disguise herself chiefly by swapping from one wig to another, none of which obscure her signature beauty mark, yet will work because sure why not.
If you’d have told me The Rhythm Section was a remake of a dusty old spy novel or a long-shelved TNT original movie, I’d believe you. Its stock characters seem snatched from the ’80s, ranging from Islamic terrorist to scowling ex-intelligence agent, and noble yet naive journalist. Its plot dabbles in geopolitics without having anything to say. And its plot points are crudely dumped in a series of tight-lipped dialogue scenes or through rosy-colored flashbacks of the late Patrick family, all smiles, card games, and quality time.
The only thing that feels moderately modern is that Reed doesn’t subject Lively to the garish Male Gaze of many spy movies. The actress is recurringly in her underwear and making out with men, but Reed doesn’t regard her as a sex object. The camera will not leer over Lively’s curves but instead exhibit her exposed flesh as vulnerable to the cold of a winter lake or the violence of a dangerous man. Reed also rejects the power fantasy trope by costuming her leading lady not in super-chic fashions of A Simple Favor or Atomic Blonde, but in a series of billowing blouses and a dark, short wig of unruly locks that makes Lively look like she’s cosplaying Timothee Chalamet on laundry day. It’s an approach that seems aimed at grounding this story in a grim reality, just as Lively’s body painted in bruises and unpolished face does. But neither this nor Lively’s earnestness to dig into the grunge of Stephanie’s experiences is enough to bring the tedious script to life.
The film is woefully one-note, and that note is a half-hearted grunt. Leaning away from the glamour girls she’s played before, Lively seems lost. She throws herself full-bodied into the film’s demanding fight scenes. However, her guarded countenance buries her dazzling screen presence and squelches the heat she might have sparked with her hunky co-stars in scenes of face-offs and hookups. Law broods, while Brown plays it cool. But all of the performances—save for a Max Casella as a kinky snitch—feel muted. It’s a shame because big-swing style might have made The Rhythm Section a ride instead of a slog.
As it is, Stephanie feels less like a person than a plot device, manufactured to run us through the plot points and trailer-friendly stunts without ever hitting the audience’s heart. The action scenes themselves are hazy. Often shot in handheld, they strive for the kinetic energy of Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity, particularly a car chase scene that puts us in the perspective of co-pilot as our hero ricochets around the narrow yet bustling streets of Tangier. Yet the focus is often blurred, which may be intended to create a chaotic atmosphere, but left me frustrated as I just couldn’t see what was going on.
Nonetheless, The Rhythm Section is not the worst this dump month has had to offer. It’s not interesting enough for that dubious honor. Instead, it’s a bore, tressed up with tropes and intriguing intentions but never snagging onto anything original or exciting. It’s the kind of movie you might stumble upon channel surfing, fall asleep while giving it a shot, then wake up feeling like you’ve missed nothing worthwhile. And you’d be right.
The Rhythm Section opens Friday.
Header Image Source: Paramount Pictures