THE RHYTHM SECTION

★★

WATCHABLE BUT COMPLETELY UNMEMORABLE ESPIONAGE THRILLS

ONLINE ENTERTAINMENT
By Jake Watt
21st April 2020

Revenge has largely been a male domain in Hollywood, but lately there have been plenty of movies featuring female characters seeking to right some very bad wrongs, from 'Widows' to 'A Vigilante' to... uh, 'Revenge'.

Director Reed Morano's action-thriller opens with a mop-haired Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively, 'A Simple Favour') creeping through a house before pointing a silenced pistol at the head of Lehmans (Richard Brake, '3 From Hell'). It's meant to be a tense opening setup but, like the rest of 'The Rhythm Section', it is completely devoid of any "oomph".

The film flashes back to Stephanie's pre-killer days in a brothel, when she's a puffy-eyed sex worker who masks her pain with hard drugs. She's visited by a reporter named Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) who is investigating the plane crash that killed Stephanie's family and left her a broken wreck. After some flashbacks to her family, she's suddenly ready to learn the truth - the plane crash was not an accident, but an attack by a terrorist known only as U-17, covered up by the government.

She eventually tracks down Proctor's source, the mysterious Ian Boyd (Jude Law, 'Vox Lux'), a former MI6 operative. He begins training her to take on the persona of a dead killer for hire, Petra. Cue the kind of scenes you'd find in 'La Femme Nikita', 'Hanna', 'Anna' and any number of other pictures in which young women are transformed by tough dudes into remorseless assassins.

'THE RHYTHM SECTION' TRAILER

She learns how to shoot by controlling her "rhythm section" - her heart, the drums and her lungs, the bass. Then she learns how to fight hand-to-hand. Sort of. As Boyd tells her, there's no way for him to turn an inexperienced newbie into a well-oiled killing machine in such a short amount of time. Armed with some beginner-level combat skills, a knife concealed in a hairbrush and a new identity, Stephanie bonds with an information broker, Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown, 'The Predator'). From there, she begins to track down the gangsters, bombmakers and financiers who played a role in her family's demise.

Screenwriter Mark Burnell - who adapted the first of his four Stephanie Patrick novels for this film - clearly knows how to cobble together stories people want to keep reading, so where does the problem lie?

For starters, the characters and plot are thinly sketched, despite the twists and turns, and the thematic resonance is flat. Moreno seems as disinterested in Stephanie's character as she is in her targets, her trauma, or the film's themes. For most of the movie, she's a reluctant avenger, but nothing resembling a fully-drawn woman. Lively's performance is, as a result, robotic (she also oscillates between a British and Aussie accent). Meanwhile, Sterling K. Brown exudes charisma as a highly cultivated man whose soft surface belies the threat he represents, but he has little to work off. Jude Law just rehashes his morally ambiguous mentor from 'Captain Marvel'.

Screenwriter Mark Burnell - who adapted the first of his four Stephanie Patrick novels for this film - clearly knows how to cobble together stories people want to keep reading, so where does the problem lie with this film?

'The Rhythm Section' soundtrack doesn't include that many pop songs but, when they are heard, the musical cues beat the audience over the head to convey Stephanie's mentality or current mission. For example, 'I'm Waiting for the Man' by The Velvet Underground is playing when Stephanie is working as a prostitute. It's on the nose.

Much of Moreno's direction is effective - she proved her skill with the underrated sci-fi 'I Think We're Alone Now' - and her background as a cinematographer is clear in the sombre camera work that frames this depressing story. But when it comes to the action sequences, she's an ill-fit for the material. Stephanie is intended to be a realistic hero whose attempts to kill her targets are messy and lacking finesse, all fumbling shootouts and clumsy brawling. But it's a bore to watch on screen, especially when compared to how someone like Jeremy Saulnier staged his amateur-hour murders in 'Blue Ruin' and 'Green Room'.

'The Rhythm Section' recalls a handful of other recent films. 'The Operative', starring Diane Kruger, a realistic spy drama about a young undercover operative and her handler. There's 'In The Fade', also starring Diane Kruger, which follows a woman seeking revenge on the terrorist who blew up her family. Then you have 'Atomic Blonde' and 'Red Sparrow', which don't star Diane Kruger, but both were intended to set up new espionage action franchises about lady spies with wonky European accents.

Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who are famous for being producers of the James Bond series, 'The Rhythm Section' attempts to be all of these movies. As a result, it's none of them. It isn't realistic or harrowing or exciting or titillating. It isn't 'American Assassin', a minor dud which essentially told the teenage boy version of this story and at least had a cracking opening scene. It isn't even 'Peppermint', a major dud which featured a vital lead performance from Jennifer Garner.

Instead, 'The Rhythm Section' is a middling but serviceable time-waster that would be instantly forgettable... if it didn't currently hold the box-office title for worst opening weekend of all-time, that is.

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