The Rhythm Section movie review: out of tune

part of my Directed by Women series
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The Rhythm Section red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Poor Blake Lively does her de-glammed best in this poor Xerox of much better Turn The Urchin Into A Spy thrillers. But there isn’t a single human interaction in this hamfisted movie that rings true.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women; love a good spy thriller
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

The Rhythm Section is a movie — ostensibly — about a grief so devastating, so soul-shattering, that it prompts its protagonist to undergo not one but two radical, life-altering personal paradigm shifts in the course of a mere few years, the sort of realignment after which one barely recognizes oneself.

Surely, then, this is a film with a profound understanding of human relationships, of how we support one another and what we mean to one another and how slogging through this mortal existence is rendered meaningful because of whom we know and whom we love, and how ruinous it is when that’s all snatched so cruelly away.

The Rhythm Section Jude Law
For a wonder, the male supporting characters here are as underwritten as female characters propping up male protagonists usually are.

LOL. Not a chance. There isn’t a single human interaction in this disaster of a thriller that rings true… not even the exploitive, baldly transactional ones that are all about exchanging money for a pretense of human interaction.

Welcome to the January cinematic dumping ground.

Poor Blake Lively: she does her best as Stephanie Patrick, a former top-of-her-class Oxford University student turned *checks notes* crack-smoking London prostitute turned *checks notes* freelance intelligence operative/assassin. Even her fake British accent is, if not perfect, a little better than what usually happens when most American actors make such an effort. If The Rhythm Section appears to be an attempt for the actress to de-glam herself and get down and dirty — in that time-honored way that seems to be, sadly, the only way in which beautiful women can be taken seriously as actors — well, that’s more of an indictment of Hollywood than it is any poor reflection on Lively (A Simple Favor, The Shallows). She deserves to be taken seriously.

The Rhythm Section Raza Jaffrey
Why on Earth does this journalist bring the protagonist in on his work? We have no idea…

But this ain’t gonna do it. The hamfisted script is by Mark Burnell, based on his novel, the first of four (so far) about Stephanie Patrick, which goes to show (yet again) that novelists should not adapt their own books. (Or else the book itself is shit. I haven’t read it. But both things could be true.) We’re supposed to believe that the first of Patrick’s shifts — from elite student to crack-smoking prostitute — happens in the wake of her entire family (parents and siblings) being killed in a plane crash, perhaps compounded by the guilt that she was also supposed to be on that flight… except she apparently also did not care enough about her family to prevent her blowing them off at the very last minute, while they were expecting her to meet them at the airport? We never get even a hint of an explanation about what happened here.

And yet this is but the first of many mysterious — nay, bizarre — elidings over motivations that you’d think were really vital to understanding and empathizing with Patrick. And with any of the other characters — mere approximations of people — appearing onscreen. What is driving Raza Jaffrey’s (Sex and the City 2, Harry Brown) journalist, who decides to approach hooker Patrick about the story he’s investigating, that that plane crash wasn’t an accident but was, in fact, an act of terrorism that has been covered up at the highest levels? (What is the point of that, except to kickstart the plot?) What the heck is driving Jude Law’s (Captain Marvel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) ex-MI6 agent — and the journalist’s inside source — when he decides, seemingly randomly, and without any prompting on the part of anyone, to turn the waif who shows up on his doorstep in remote rural Scotland(!) — that would be Patrick, in case that’s not clear, and what with all of the absurdities of this movie, that’s not at all a given — into a kickass secret agent who can hunt down the perpetrators of that terror incident? What in the absolute hell is behind anything at all that Sterling K. Brown’s former CIA operative turned black-market information broker does here? He might be the most frustratingly unwritten character in this movie, and that’s a really high bar to get over.

The Rhythm Section Sterling K. Brown
“Wait. What am I doing here? What’s my motivation? Anyone…?”

Who can say what the answers to any of these essential questions might be? Certainly not this movie.

The Rhythm Section — the title refers to something-something about one’s heartbeat being the drums and one’s breathing being the bass, or maybe it’s the other way around, and ya gotta learn to control ’em in order to become an efficient killing machine — is like a badly degraded Xerox of a spy thriller… or, of that spy-thriller subgenre of Let’s Turn The Girl Urchin Into A Spy. (There’s a reason why the phrase La Femme Nikita kept dancing through my brain during this movie, and it’s not only because Lively here looks so much like Bridget Fonda in the pale 1993 Hollywood remake Point of No Return.) Cinematographer turned director Reed Morano, with her third feature, certainly has feminist chops: she has produced and directed a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and will be directing and producing all of Amazon’s upcoming series based on Naomi Alderman’s, er, electrifyingly feminist book The Power. But the only thing remotely feminist about this movie is Lively’s wardrobe, which mostly refrains from casting her as a fetish object. That’s nowhere near enough to make this worth anyone’s time.

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