The Rhythm Section, a thriller about revenge and geopolitics, wastes no time establishing a tone of po-faced cheese. Armed with a silenced pistol, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) creeps up a stairway in Morocco, past a parrot, and up behind an old man in a wheelchair. She appears to be some kind of stylish assassin, with short, choppy dark hair. But before she can pull the trigger, the screenplay interrupts. It is eight months earlier. Stephanie is a stringy blonde with dark bags under her eyes, an addict plying the world’s oldest profession at below-wholesale prices in London. At this point, we are presumably supposed to be thinking, “Wow, how did she get from here to there?”
Not that this character is much of mystery; her psychology is for the most part defined by her changing hairstyles, as well as Lively’s unwavering attempt at a lockjaw English accent. We learn that she was once a movie’s idea of middle class (instead of a movie’s idea of rock bottom), until her parents and siblings died in a plane crash. Occasionally, The Rhythm Section offers us glimpses of these happier times in flashbacks that are filmed with Penthouse-ian quantities of hazy lens diffusion to distinguish them from the movie’s otherwise gloomy palette: The Patricks live in their showroom kitchen and living room in Stephanie’s memory, everyone wearing sweaters and giggling and enjoying Le Creuset cookware.
How heroin and sex work entered the picture is anyone’s guess. But Stephanie’s path to something like badassery begins with Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), a journalist with shadowy connections who first approaches her by posing as a client. Proctor, who has one of those serial-killer walls of photos and newspaper clippings in his flat, claims to have proof that the plane crash that killed Stephanie’s family was not only a terrorist bombing, but that it was also covered up, and now one of the men responsible is roaming free in London. After an initial, abortive attempt at vengeance that ends with disastrous consequences, she decides to enter the cloak-and-dagger world herself.
Adapted from a novel by Mark Burnell (who also wrote the script), The Rhythm Section arrives under the imprimatur of the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, who have run Eon Productions and the James Bond franchise since GoldenEye. (Broccoli is the daughter of Eon co-founder Albert R. Broccoli; Wilson is his stepson.) But though there are staples of that series to be found throughout The Rhythm Section—including exotic locales, duplicitous wheeler-dealers, and a little bit of BDSM imagery—it ultimately offers none of the fun and only a few of the basic thrills of Bond.
Following Proctor’s clues, Stephanie quickly tracks down “B” (Jude Law), a disgruntled ex-spy who lives in a secluded cottage in Scotland. He also has a personal connection to the bombing, and quickly becomes Stephanie’s tough-love life coach in matters of skullduggery and murder. An always welcome presence, Law is the only cast member in The Rhythm Section to give the impression that he had any fun making the movie, playing B as a survivalist sourpuss with impossible reflexes. Nonetheless, he is consistently dressed and lit as though he were posing for a watch ad. That’s the Eon Productions touch.
B’s idea—which gives the film an extra layer it never really explores—is that Stephanie should adopt the identity of Petra Reuter, a notorious German contract killer who died some years ago. Fortunately for her, everyone who knows what Petra looked like is also dead, and given her line of work, it’s easy to dismiss reports of her demise as having been wildly exaggerated. Thus, having been trained by B to look and act like a cold-blooded killer, she is sent off to find an information broker named Serra (a clammy Sterling K. Brown), who might unwittingly help her find the terrorist mastermind known as “U17.” How all of this works is a little fuzzy; as with Bond, much more attention seems to have been paid to the cut of Stephanie/Petra’s shirts.
The truth is that this movie—with the deadly woman who is plucked from the gutter and empowered by putting on wigs and pretending to be manipulated by men—has been made many times before, and usually by Luc Besson. But The Rhythm Section would balk at being mistaken for that kind of creepoid, male-gaze trash, despite all the commonalities: the hunky male mentor, the overcomplicated lingerie, the awkwardly un-erotic love scene. The film is directed by Reed Morano, who has helmed a couple of indie features (most recently I Think We’re Alone Now), but is better known for her work in TV; she won an Emmy for directing the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Morano began her career as a cinematographer, and continued working as one until recently. Though she has previously lensed her own films, she has here enlisted the services of Sean Bobbitt, the longtime director of photography to Steve McQueen. Unfortunately, this cinematographic brain trust’s idea of a visual style for The Rhythm Section mostly consists of making sure that everyone can tell that the movie was filmed with anamorphic lenses. Shot after shot is defined by barrel distortion, negative spaces of defocused oval blobs, or occasionally streaky lens flares.
What is actually in these shots appears to have been a tertiary matter. The Rhythm Section is filled with conversations covered from random camera angles; the close-ups probably looked cool through the viewfinder, but they have a discombobulating effect when cut together. It’s enough to turn basic expository scenes into spot-the-difference games of mismatched eye lines. A couple of seemingly crucial sequences employ the trick of cutting one scene with flash-forwards of a scene that’s supposed to happen later—a collage effect borrowed from ’60s movies that can work in some cases (Anne V. Coates pulled it off with aplomb on Out Of Sight), but more often feels like an editor’s attempt to make something artsy out of undramatic footage.
To be fair, there are a few interesting sequences in The Rhythm Section, though they tend to involve long takes, either real or created with digital assistance. One is an impromptu fight between Stephanie and B in a cottage kitchen. Another is a faux single-take car chase of the kind that countless thrillers have attempted since Children Of Men wide angles that everybody uses to show off their over-choreographed camera movements, with the obvious cut points hidden by constant whip pans.
If it weren’t for the not-entirely-convincing illusion of the chase unfolding in a single shot, the scene would probably look like any number of jerky, post-Bourne urban demolition derbies; its appeal is three-quarters flagrant gimmickry. That approach also extends to the movie’s overreaching soundtrack, which begins with its very on-the-nose deployment of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man” and concludes with a synth-heavy Sleigh Bells cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (a.k.a. “In The Pines”), the folk song previously recorded by the likes of Lead Belly and Nirvana.
The latter track, which sounds like it belongs in a completely different movie, accompanies shots of Stephanie strutting toward the camera, having apparently shed any trace of vulnerability—which feels like a closing admission on Morano’s part that, even in this day and age, no one seems to have figured out how to make a movie about female assassins or spies that doesn’t feel like some kind of fetish and fashion item. Burnell has already written several more novels featuring the Stephanie Patrick character, and the ending implies that Broccoli and Wilson are hoping to produce sequels, if anyone cares.