Only the third non-007 film that the company has financed, EON Productions’ The Rhythm Section begins as a grim fairytale about resolve born from remorse, finishes like something you could call Atomic Bond, and slaps together a previously-on-Homeland sort of narrative in between.
Making her big-studio debut, director Reed Morano imports the whisper-to-roar whiplash and harried headspace of her best work on the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. But despite some occasionally striking shot composition and some snub-nosed work from star Blake Lively, Morano imparts nothing here beyond the usual glum, generic dig-two-graves admonitions about vengeance.
Adapted for the screen by Mark Burnell from his novel of the same name, Rhythm is the story of Stephanie Parker (Lively), who’s a top Oxford University student before her family perishes in a plane crash. Three years later, Stephanie has bottomed out in a haze of drugs and prostitution at a London hovel. She listens to the same voicemail from her mom again and again. At her lowest moments, she reflects on the awkward silences and forced smiles before the camera clicked on a timed family photograph. These instances she once wished would quickly pass are something she’d give anything to have back. Instead, she’s simply running out her clock on survivor’s remorse and speeding it up with the drugs.
One night, Stephanie is approached by Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), a freelance journalist who claims the plane crash was actually the result of a terrorist bombing — and that the bombmaker is walking London’s streets a free man. It serves as a defibrillator shock of purpose for Stephanie, and in the film’s first great shot, Morano and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt film Stephanie’s escape from her self-imposed death spiral with the hurtling energy of someone rediscovering their heartbeat. They also let the photos of the dead at Proctor’s apartment, which encompass an entire wall, permeate the edges of their conversations in that space, as if these souls will be aboard whatever vessel form Stephanie takes. “You’re another victim,” Proctor tells Stephanie. “You’re just not dead yet.”
Stephanie eventually tracks Proctor’s information trail to the remote Scottish countryside and a former MI6 agent known to her as B (Jude Law). Desperate for revenge, Stephanie asks B to train her, which he does because let’s face it: These days, Rhythm represents a thin line between theatrical viability and VOD jams called Trigger Point or something for Jude Law.
From there, Rhythm dons the guise of a waif-wasting-wastrels movie like Luc Besson would make, although it replaces any ick factor for a nigh-androgynous sense of style. Rhythm is a bad wig emporium, at one point rendering Lively a cross between Cate Blanchett and Timothée Chalamet. And there are scenes where Lively seems to dress in the clothes Clark Griswold found to keep warm in the attic during Christmas Vacation or looks like Robert Downey Jr. doing an impersonation of the Cure’s Robert Smith on 1980s SNL. One go-nowhere digression puts Lively in some, uh, intricate lingerie that feels like a concession to cretins there to leer at her rather than appreciate the gravity she brings to this role (as she did in 2018’s A Simple Favor). Lively may lack Claire Danes’ cachet or Elisabeth Moss’s elegance, but hers is an effective, emotionally mercenary turn.
Through her, Rhythm also adds the intriguing wrinkle of ineptitude. Turns out Stephanie is not terribly skilled at, y’know, killing people. She talks a good game, though, telling a potential benefactor who also lost someone in the crash that she can offer them closure. “How will you do that?” the benefactor asks. “Violently,” she replies, in a retort you can just hear Daniel Craig purring. B teaches Stephanie how to shoot and scrap, but her M.O. seems to be less murdering the bad guys than creating enough chaos and commotion to create incidents in which they just so happen to die.
Assuming the identity of a presumed-dead assassin, Stephanie tries to find the bombmaker and ferret out the identity of U-17, the mysterious money-man behind the plot. She’s assisted by Serah (Sterling K. Brown of Waves), an information broker who shows up every few minutes to dump exposition because he’s an information broker.
Rhythm certainly trots the globe a la 007, touching down in Madrid, Tangier, New York and France across 109 minutes. And there are certainly a few more one-liners you can almost hear Commander Bond uttering. But the film’s second half sinks under cheeky soundtrack choices (“It’s Now or Never” before Stephanie and the bombmaker square off), hand-wave plotting (B delivers key intel and says “Don’t ask me how I know” several times) and a laughably expedient ending. In all, The Rhythm Section is an unfortunate title for a thriller that seems to find a backbeat and groove, then willfully abandons both.