From Tomb Raider to Atomic Blonde and even to last month’s Underwater, those jonesing for a female-driven action movie haven’t had to wait very long at the cineplex in recent years. Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section, based on Mark Burnell’s bestselling novel, is the latest (and far from the greatest) to join that list. And while we’re at it, we can also add Blake Lively to the roster of Hollywood ingenues who aren’t afraid to chisel away their uber-glam veneer and throw their all into a ridiculously unforgiving role.
Following in the footsteps of Nicole Kidman in 2018’s Destroyer and Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster (though not quite at their talent level just yet), Lively strips down to portray a character who looks like she eats nails for breakfast and adheres to the grooming practices of a junkyard raccoon. The transformation is a startling one for Lively, to be sure, and she rides it all the way to the finish line, trying her level best along the way to make The Rhythm Section work. In the end, though, it’s all for naught as the film never has a chance to even get off the ground.
Stephanie Patrick (Lively) is a hooker and heroin addict coping with the recent loss of her family in a plane bombing. After a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) investigating the bombing tracks down Stephanie in a brothel (though it’s never clear why he does—clearly he couldn’t have had designs on having her become a revenge-fueled international killer), she sets out to become a revenge-fueled international killer. This leads her to Scotland, where a former MI6 agent (Jude Law) is happy to take a heroin-addicted prostitute on board for a spot of spy training (again, we’re never quite sure why).
The entire first half of Burnell’s lengthy, complex book (which he adapted himself into the screenplay) is condensed into barely a half-hour of screen time, leaving us to believe that the Scottish Highlands can cure someone of heroin addiction in record time and also transform them into an agent perfectly equipped to head out into the field against the world’s most accomplished terrorists.
Indeed, the script is so fraughtfully disjointed that at times it feels as though a reel or two of The Rhythm Section got lost in the mail—a feeling exacerbated for those who read (and even enjoyed) the book. Speaking of which, those fans should run in the other direction; aside from the basic setup and the names of a few characters, the book and movie have precious little in common.
Lively, getting the chance to channel her inner Jason Bourne/James Bond, does an admirable job, worthy of keeping her among the ranks of the more underrated actresses at work these days. When she’s not knocking a handful of emotional scenes out of the park, she’s convincingly knocking a slew of bad guys into next week. Likewise, Morano (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale) does admirable work with the material she’s given, consistently using hand-held cameras to drop us smack into the middle of the story and a decidedly grim palette to effectively set the mood throughout.
In today’s streaming age, it’s hard to shake the thought that Burnell’s book would have been perfect fodder for an eight- or ten-episode series, allowing the source material some time to breathe. As is, The Rhythm Section instead leaves you trying (in vain) to simply find the beat.