I’d look forward to the release of The Rhythm Section since I saw the first trailer. I’ve been impressed with Blake Lively’s work, starting with The Town, and she was one of the good parts of Savages. I became a fan with the wonderful romance Age of Adaline. A Simple Favor had charm in its wicked sense of humor overlaid on a film noir plot. The Rhythm Section’s trailer looked like a foray into the thriller genre in the John LeCarre vein with a sprinkling of Bourne action. The movie does deliver on that promise, but only after you sit through the tedious first half.
It’s based on the first book in a series that was published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, written by Mark Burnell. Burnell himself adapted the book for the screen, so he doesn’t have the excuse it was a bad adaptation. Rather than building an authentic female character, the story comes across as a male fantasy with unrealistic actions and reactions. The director, Reed Morano, had been a cinematographer before she moved into directing, and she’d done good work on early episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which won her a Primetime Emmy. The visuals are effective throughout the film, but she appears to go with the script rather than leavening the testosterone of Burnell’s novel or fixing its structure.
After a brief opening scene (more on that later) the story jumps back eight months. Stephanie Patrick (Lively) is strung out and working in a brothel in London. A man hires her, but it turns out he’s a journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) who’s hunted Stephanie down. Three years earlier all of Stephanie’s close family died in a plane crash over the ocean. Proctor has found it was brought down by a bomb, an assassination of a dissident with 250-plus collateral victims, only to be covered up by the government. Proctor has found the bomb’s maker, a London student named Reza, but the person who got the bomb on the plane is a shadow known as U-17. Stephanie gets a gun, intending to kill Reza, but she can’t go through with it. Reza steals her bag, learns about Proctor’s investigation, and murders him. From Proctor’s notes and phone, Stephanie discovers his source, a disgraced former MI-6 operative who goes by B (Jude Law). Stephanie pushes B to train her so she can get revenge on Reza and U-17. After at first refusing, B begins to tutor her in the necessary skills.
There are several weaknesses with this. The descent of Stephanie from bright and beautiful (seen in brief flashbacks with her family) to drug-addled whore is extreme, to say the least. Harder to believe is the progression from that low point to a trained killer seeking revenge. But that is the first hour of the movie – Jude Law putting her through a punishing physical regimen to toughen her up, all against the bleak landscape of rural Scotland in winter. It becomes a marathon for the audience to maintain their focus through the repetitive scenes. As mentioned, the movie starts with a short scene as Stephanie approaches her first target after her training. If the training had been integrated with the pursuit of vengeance – flashbacks to show how she acquired the skills she needs – it could have increased the energy of the story.
For the second half of the film is effective, as Stephanie pursues her vengeance while also masquerading as a lethal contract killer whom B had dispatched months earlier but whose death is still a secret. There are several thrilling set pieces, including a violent car case told with the camera in the car with Stephanie. The second half also features a CIA agent who’s gone freelance, played with fluid charm by Sterling K. Brown. But getting to that part is a hard slog. Lively is also more – I have to say it – lively in the second half, and she could make a believable female agent in a different movie.
Here, though, the latter half can’t make up for the former. It is a disappointment.