A film review by Craig J. Koban February 6, 2020


2020, R, 109 mins.


Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick  /  Jude Law as B  /  Daniel Mays as Dean West  /  Ivana Bašić as Oksana  /  Nasser Memarzia as Suleman Kaif   /  Max Casella as Leon Giler  /  Richard Brake as Lehmans

Directed by Reed Morano  /  Written by Mark Burnell, adapting his own novel





Despite flourishes of creativity and some atypically intriguing handling of its lead character, THE RHYTHM SECTION is a globetrotting spy/revenge thriller that feels like a greatest hits package of so many other far better tunes.  The fact that it comes from the iconic EON Productions and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson is of no surprise (they're best known for quarterbacking the James Bond franchise), and it represents an attempt on their part to craft a different type of espionage film that's tonally removed from the big screen adventures of 007 (that, and it's about a female operative).  Unfortunately, THE RHYTHM SECTION feels woefully malnourished on scripting front, not to mention that it simply doesn't offer up enough novel intrigue to help segregate itself proudly apart from great recent genre examples like RED SPARROW and ATOMIC BLONDE. 

The film opens awkwardly with a flashforward, highlighting the protagonist's first attempt at a state sponsored assassination.  After that, we flashback and are introduced to the same woman, albeit in much more tortured and self abused form in Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), who has hit absolute rock bottom in life, succumbing to prostitution and rampant drug use on the streets.  Her parents and siblings were all brutally killed during a plane crash, which is revealed to have been caused by a terrorist bombing.  As a result of losing her entire family, Stephanie's life devolved into darkness and despair.  There's some light at the end of the tunnel, though, when an intrepid investigative journalist (Raza Jaffrey) finds and offers her a place to crash, all while informing her that he's been on the hunt for the perpetrators of this bombing, getting aid via a secret MI-6 agent in "B" (Jude Law).  Unfortunately, just when things look on the up and up, the reporter is brutally killed, thanks largely to Stephanie tipping off the terrorist suspect.   

Realizing that she needs to not only avenge her fallen family, but also this journalist that opened her eyes to the truth of the plane crash, Stephanie decides to seek out the hidden MI-6 agent, hoping that he will enlist her in the fight to come.  She finds him in a remote country cabin in Scotland, but B seems very little impressed at her current state of mind and physical condition.  Faster than you can say "TRAINING MONTAGE!", the super spy decides to take in the hungry for comeuppance Stephanie and begins the arduous process of giving her a crash course on how to be a clandestine assassin, (predictably, there are some steep learning curves).  Once B feels that she's ready he decides to send her on her first assignment in the field (which brings us back to the aforementioned flashforward that opened the film), and from there Stephanie begins to craft a hit list of other possible backers and power players involved.  Along the way,  she comes in contact with an ex-CIA agent (Sterling K. Brown), who offers up to her a gold mine of Intel that could eventually bring her to the diabolical ringleader of the plane bombing.   



The one thing that THE RHYTHM SECTION definitely has going for is its treatment of the Stephanie, who seems superficially cut from the same LA FEMME NIKITA cloth of so many other female spy operatives of the movies.  However, it should be noted that Lively's spy isn't perfect by any means, and when on the prowl she makes multiple categorical blunders along the way.  Plus, she's not extremely lethal or composed in the field and frequently has a difficult time physically handling her multiple attackers.  More times than not, her missions don't really stick to landing because of some miscalculation on her part, and it's the wounded and grounded approach to this character that makes her more compelling than if she was just some sort of impervious government killer.  In the pantheon of girl powered movie assassins, Stephanie seems a bit more relatable and believable than most.  That, and Lively forges a commanding and haunted screen presence here in Stephanie, who credibly relays the emotional turmoil that afflicts her role while simultaneously showing her as a ruthlessly determined - but frequently uncoordinated - avenger of evil.  I've never thought much of Lively as an actress of range, but here she acclimates herself admirable in a character of full and committed immersion; she's never been better in a film. 

It helps considerably that THE RHYTHM SECTION is aiming for something drearier than a typical Bond adventure and makes conscientious efforts to dive deep into the mindset of its hero and the emotional abyss she finds herself in.  This film isn't glossy, romanticized, and visually slick like a typical Bond film, and reasonable pains have been taken here to make the proceedings feels gritty and lived in (if anything this film owes more to the JASON BOURNE films than it does to Ian Fleming).  Director Reed Morano does a fairly decent job of orchestrating all of the film's rampant chaos and, in some instances she crafts some visually stunning and creative set pieces.  The camerawork employed, for example, during a sensationally realized car chase in Tangiers creates an undeniable sense of confused immediacy.  Morano gets even more clever with imagery and staging during a crucial training sequence between Law and Lively (set in the ultra tight and intense confines of a small kitchen), during which time - in one long and fluid take - we see Stephanie morph from anxiety plagued victim to a brutal combatant.  On a visceral level, THE RHYTHM SECTION is on solid ground. 

What's not on solid ground, however, is how rushed and sometimes misshapen the overall screenplay feels here.  Screenwriter Mark Burnell (adapted his own 1999 novel) seems to be desperately cramming an awful lot of information into a the tight confines of a 90-plus minute film, with obvious consequences.  The film dishes out the establishing and expositional particulars with efficiency, but many subplots feel under cranked or not cranked up at all.  Law's mentor figure is a real enigma here, and we learn really next to nothing about him (it's a small thrill, though, to see the actor come as close to playing Bond on the silver screen as we're likely ever to get).  Then there's the very thorny Sterling K. Brown character, that seems conveniently shoehorned into the narrative and whose relationship with Stephanie pays off in perfunctory ways that anyone with an eagle eye can spot from a proverbial mile away.  The two stars aren't afforded much in the way of tangible screen time together either, which makes chemistry between the pair kind of null and void.  Even the main terrorist villains are given no depth whatsoever and by the time we reach a would-be thrilling climax between them and Stephanie it all seems anti-climatic and lacking in a potent sense of payoff.  

The tone is also frequently out of whack at times too.  There are times when THE RHYTHM SECTION is almost too grim to endure, but then there are other scenes when Morano incongruently blasts classic pop and rock tunes on the soundtrack (like Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry" or Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never", both of which not so subtly comment on the events to come).  Choices like this feel like the product of reshoots or last minute additions, which could be true, seeing as the film had its release bumped three times since February of 2019 (not a good sign).  THE RHYTHM SECTION just became the lowest grossing weekend film playing in 3000 cinemas...of all time (yeah...like ever).  The title certainly didn't help matters (which, in the film, references Law dispensing some Zen-like advice about staying calm in the field: "Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass...The Rhythm Section"), and lay filmgoers would have zero idea based on it that they were about to enter a spy thriller (the marketing of the film was also abysmally lacking, so there's that).   Still, is the final product worthy of financial and qualitative bomb status?  Not really.  Lively is a game and dedicated presence here (even though he English accent is all over the place at times), and Morano's assured and stylish direction displays great promise of better things to come.  For as much good as THE RHYTHM SECTION has to offer in the no-nonsense female killer/spy genre, it just doesn't offer enough to warrant a ticket price, and it rarely finds a consistent beat and tempo to forge a meaningful whole.  

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