This one did itself in barely halfway through its runtime.
Cantankerous hermit Jude Law dares a haggered Blake Lively to either keep running with him or go swimming to build up her endurance. When Lively tries to explain that she can’t handle all of this, Law lands the killing blow on his own movie:
“You know what you are? A cliché. You’re a cliché.”
You know what else is a cliche, Jude? Having Lively end up doing the thing she said she couldn’t do. Followed by a training montage. Accompanied by dramatic flashbacks. Leading to a shaky cam car chase. Overstuffed with international political speak. It’s a groan-inducing case of the pot calling the kettle dull…pardon me, black.
Based on Mark Burnell’s 2018 novel of the same name, The Rhythm Section wants to be two different kinds of action movies at the same time. Its set-up is that of a revenge thriller, with Stephanie Patrick (Lively) pulling herself out of England’s skeevy underbelly to track down the people who organized the airplane bombing that killed her family. She uses an investigative journalist (Raza Jaffrey) to connect her to a secretive source of information: isolated ex-MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Law). The revenge plot is still in the air as The Rhythm Section somehow morphs into a globe-trotting spy thriller as Iain trains Stephanie to be an assassin. She then links up with an ex-CIA agent (Sterling K. Brown) to take out those tied to terrorism, but is Stephanie ready to take a life and live with ghosts for the rest of her days?
While in the case of any other action movie, the answer would be obvious, The Rhythm Section tries instead to lean on is Stephanie’s inexperience. Burnell, who also wrote the script for the movie, hammers in the fact that his heroine is in way over her head both physically and emotionally. The problem is that it makes Stephanie’s frustratingly incompetent. This attempt to make her more vulnerable and ground the action instead makes her unlikable and boring. Every fight scene she survives is either out of convenience or sheer luck, almost like the scenes are choreographed to be in The Naked Gun. Emotionally, Stephanie is a blank slate. There’s little reason to root for her as the hero and her turn to action badass at the end feels unearned. Though The Rhythm Section tries to subvert action movie expectations, its lead character is emotionally hollow and physically listless.
It’s a wonder why nobody behind the camera pointed that out. Director Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale, I Think We’re Alone Now) may have been too focused on giving an update to the Jason Bourne-style action flick with its grim color palette, gritty environments, choppy editing and fight scenes with unhinged camerawork. But again, Burnell’s script does her no favors with a half-assed lead character and boring spy politics. Morano doesn’t show much inspiration in her action scenes either, sans for a brief car chase on Stephanie’s first mission and the climactic chase to a bus. It’s comparable to another Bourne imitator: 2008’s Quantum of Solace, where suave James Bond had to run and punch through intense shaky cam and grittier action beats (along some horrid editing, which The Rhythm Section mercifully avoids). But while Quantum was paced and edited like the filmmakers were on a cocaine high, The Rhythm Section moves at a snail’s pace and makes its 109-minute runtime feel like a slog. The look is fitting and there are some smooth rhythms in the score by Steve Mazzaro (Bullet to the Head), but The Rhythm Section is missing energy and inspiration in its execution.
It’s also missing invested actors. Lively should be commended for her attempts at versatility in her career. After leading a show as vapid as Gossip Girl for so many years, she’s been everything from a throwback 50s starlet (The Age of Adaline) to a shark survivalist (The Shallows) to a femme fatale (A Simple Favor). Lively can be a lot of things, but an action hero is not one of them. Part of it may be because of the weak script, but she doesn’t try to do anything to add more character to Stephanie. Her vacuous face doesn’t add any drama to scenes and her boring line delivery makes the attempts at cool fall flat. Law tries to bring some life into the movie with his trademark relaxed charisma, but he’s barely in the movie long enough to make a mark. Same goes for a criminally underused Brown, who looks like his peaceful vacation was rudely interrupted by a movie shoot.
The Rhythm Section is more of an idea or a tease for a good action movie. The stencil outline is there, but there’s nothing coloring in the lines. Everything in the movie in a pose rather than heartfelt action. It wants to be grounded and gritty but it’s missing heart and intensity. There’s nothing smart or fresh about it despite a basic set-up. The nerve of The Rhythm Section to call something else a cliché is laughable, certainly not the mood this revenge thriller was aiming for.