Despite a promising concept and a talented ensemble, “The Rhythm Section,” directed by Reed Morano (“Meadowland,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”), struggles to find its groove. Released Jan. 31, the film follows Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) as she tracks down and executes the people responsible for the plane crash that killed her entire family.
Once a bright student at the University of Oxford, Stephanie has fallen on hard times in the three years since her parents and siblings’ tragic deaths, and has turned to prostitution and substance-abuse. She’s approached by journalist Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), who informs her the crash wasn’t an accident, but rather a terrorist attack being covered up by the British government.
When Stephanie makes a mistake with irreversible consequences, she locates one of Keith’s collaborators, an abrasive former MI6 agent who goes by the name of “B” (Jude Law). She eventually convinces him to train her to be an assassin so she can exact revenge on the people who orchestrated the plane crash.
“You don’t have a clue about the scale of the mess you’ve caused,” B says in the first act of the movie. The line is delivered at Stephanie, but he could just as easily have been speaking to the screenwriters. The film is a mess, despite some solid performances from the cast. Characters go places and do things because the script tells them to, not because it makes sense for their arcs.
The screenplay was written by Mark Burnell, who wrote a novel of the same name on which the film is based.
It’s clear Stephanie is on a quest for vigilante justice, but her actual plan is nonexistent. Rather than laying out from the beginning who she’s going to kill and why, B and former CIA agent Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown) send her on assignments where she learns about her targets and why she needs to kill them as she goes. This story is supposed to be about her, but the script robs her of her agency. Instead of being a woman on a mission, Stephanie is a pawn to be moved around and talked-down to by other characters.
Several major plot points are either needlessly convoluted or never explained. One of the most important aspects of the plot — the motives and culprit behind the plane crash — unfolds so haphazardly that even though all is revealed by the end, it falls flat. There’s also a romance shoehorned into the second half of the film with so little effort put into it that it feels tacked on.
Another issue involves the metaphor that inspires the film’s title. During one of their training sessions, B teaches Stephanie how to fire a gun at a target. She can’t calm her nerves, and he tells her to get her “rhythm section” under control, with her heart acting as the drums and her lungs as the bass. The metaphor itself isn’t terrible, but it’s brought up a few scenes later during another training session and then dropped from the movie, never to be mentioned again. What could have been a coherent motif is instead a one-off one-liner that makes viewers wonder why it warranted becoming the film’s title.
The film’s plot is muddled and confusing, but its saving grace is its aesthetic beauty. The settings are rich and exotic, hopping from the Scottish Highlands to Madrid to Marseille, producing some truly stunning landscape shots. The film is also lit beautifully: there’s a particular shot in B’s cabin that’s reminiscent of a Vermeer painting.
Viewers who look forward to clever storytelling and well-executed character development might find the film aggravating, but audience members looking to turn off their brains and watch some exciting fight sequences will not be disappointed.
“The Rhythm Section,” rated R, is playing in theaters nationwide.