Review: ‘The Rhythm Section’ misses a beat
Blake Lively is a fighter. She fought a shark in The Shallows, career expectations in A Simple Favor, and now she’s fighting terrorists in The Rhythm Section, a movie that is not about a music ensemble, thank you very much. The story goes like this: Stephanie Patrick was a promising student at Oxford University, but then her entire family died in a plane crash and her life spiraled out of control. While she’s working as a prostitute in London, a journalist informs her that the plane crash wasn’t an accident, so she dedicates her life to hunting down the terrorist that killed her family. Also, the rhythm of her heartbeat helps her shoot people more accurately. It seems The Melody of Murder was already taken.
The Rhythm Section is based on Mark Burnell’s novel of the same name. If you’re worried that it might be an unfaithful adaptation, fret not: Burnell stuck around to write the movie’s screenplay. It didn’t turn out great, though, so you can fret if you’d like to. It’s impossible to know what extenuating circumstances most affected the screenplay—maybe it’s studio meddling, maybe it’s just Burnell—but it’s hard to imagine the author feeling satisfied with the end result.
The movie plays like a greatest hits collection of the book, excising what feels like entire chapters in order to jump from big moment to big moment. We learn that the plane crash was “a cover-up” right after we learn about the plane crash, with barely any explanation in between. Ten minutes later, an ex-MI6 agent agrees to train Stephanie as a spy, despite knowing next to nothing about her. Any elucidation the novel might’ve offered is absent here. Whenever the movie could take the long, twisty, rewarding path, it opts for a shortcut through the forest instead, immediately tripping down a hill and forgetting how it got there.
Its amnestic grasp on its own narrative fares worst with its characters. They receive as little definition as the plot points, so when requisite character reveals occur, they can’t muster any feeling—it’s hard to be surprised about a person’s true identity if their alias was never clear in the first place. The only catharsis that the movie’s climactic reveal offers is the relief of finally knowing what’s going on. For a spy thriller, The Rhythm Section is bizarrely inert.
Some pieces of the movie work better than the whole. In the context of the genre, it features a novel approach to setting the stakes: Stephanie’s first fight is against a blind invalid and she still almost dies. Her attempt to flee the scene in a stolen car proves equally fortuitous. When your protagonist is nearly foiled by a guy in a wheelchair, every other situation seems ten times more dangerous. Stephanie’s fallibility makes the little victories momentous—thwarting an assassination attempt is impressive for anyone, but even more so if your great-grandma does it.
In keeping with the ever-present sense of danger, the movie does well to highlight the grit and grime of violence. The camera keeps rolling on the pauses in between punches, stretching fights out to exhausting, laborious lengths, so that killing remains a stress rather than a release. Sound design is favored over score during action scenes, emphasizing hard hits and fractured bones instead of music to murder to. Director Reed Morano forefronts the pain and futility of revenge even when the screenplay seems more interested in birthing a new spy franchise. Lively’s performance, which oscillates between staring sadly and staring coldly, is more tuned in to Morano’s defeatism—and to the movie’s benefit.
But The Rhythm Section rarely escapes its written blueprint, which rushes from underdeveloped setups to unsatisfying payoffs until it ends with a whimper. Blake Lively’s next fight should be for a role in a movie that’s not uncompromisingly boring.