Sometimes, no matter how many strong pieces a story has or how fantastic of a cast and crew, it doesn’t gel as expected. This is the case with The Rhythm Section, a film starring Blake Lively (All I See Is You), Jude Law (Dom Hemingway), and Sterling K. Brown (Waves) and directed by Reed Morano (I Think We’re Alone Now), which combines the thematic elements of survivor’s guilt with the intrigue of a spy thriller. Morano’s direction does an incredible job of putting the audience into the headspace of Lively’s lead, Stephanie, as her life becomes increasingly dangerous, yet there’s something in the pacing, narrative structure, and eventual conclusion that leaves the audience cold.
Three years after her family died in an airplane explosion, Stephanie has gone from top Oxford University student to working as a prostitute who maintains a steady high. This would have been her life, except reporter Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) tracks her down and fills her in on the plot by a terrorist who is suspected of being responsible for the explosion that killed her family. Soon after, Stephanie connects with the mysterious B (Law) who reluctantly trains her in espionage. Determined to avenge her family, Stephanie pushes herself harder and harder until what was is barely a memory in the face of what she must do.
Advertised as from the producers of James Bond with featurettes showcasing a brief, but stellar car chase, The Rhythm Section was looking like something from the early days of writer/director/producer Luc Besson (Leon the Professional/Peppermint) wherein a seeming nobody transforms into a force of sheer will. To a small degree, Rhythm is exactly that. Stephanie’s journey is one from victim to victor, and it’s great to see someone triumph over a truly horrific destructive act. From the beginning of the film, Morano places the audience within Stephanie’s mind, cutting a close-up of a darkly lit, bruised and tired Stephanie against memories of her and her family. Constructing the scene like this immediately communicates to the audience the emotionality of the tragedy while establishing that the film will be from Stephanie’s POV. Morano maintains this approach moving forward, which helps maintain tension during the higher stakes sequences (gun fights, car chases, etc.) without indulging in spectacle. Instead, Morano’s direction makes Rhythm feel like the anti-Jason Bourne or 007 film in that the story isn’t interested in making Stephanie be a bad ass or cool, but human. So, instead of showing what others are doing, the camera stays with her, focused almost exclusively on showing how Stephanie is reacting in the moment, whether it’s relief, terror, or shock. Lively is absolutely up to the task and this film is certainly a showcase for why she should be offered more leading roles outside of dramatic or romance roles. (Confession: I have not seen A Simple Favor and have heard she kills it.) By their pairing, Lively and Morano present a very human, very relatable protagonist that you’ll want to see succeed.
But that’s just it. Her success or failure doesn’t make much sense in several places. Now, I’m not talking about Rhythm as a film in comparison to others of its ilk, like the aforementioned Peppermint which saw a similar story of vengeance play out. Internally, there’s a gigantic leap made between where Stephanie is at the start of the film and where she ends up. Do I think it’s plausible for someone with the right temperament and determination to become a trained killer? I do, especially if being trained by someone with the background of Law’s former MI-6 agent, B. Where the script from first-time screenwriter Mark Burnell has problems is in areas like moving Stephanie from prostitute to killer. The first catalyst is Proctor, a reporter who tracks down and fills Stephanie in on the story he’s been following. She’s not a witness to the event. She’s not in possession of any kind of answer. There’s no reason for him doing this other than some loose explanation he offers that she’s a living victim of the explosion. Later, when she begins her training, the script implies that Stephanie can just will away hypothermia after a short time training after spending years destroying her body via various forms of self-harm. In fact, the speed with which the film wants Stephanie to be ready to go solo seems far too generous. In fairness, and it’s one thing that’s particularly enjoyable, is how often Stephanie is shown to be in over her head, except, and this is critical, she never really seems to learn from her errors. More often than not, she survives by sheer luck rather than by the use of any of the skills she learned from B. She’s in position of the will to try but not the constitution to see it through. This would be an absolutely compelling aspect as it keeps coming up again and again throughout Rhythm, except the film, in totality, isn’t trying to keep Stephanie human but showcase her turn into a self-sufficient killer. Look at the rarely intense, claustrophobic car chase sequence: in trying to get away from several aggressors, Stephanie maneuvers her way through the streets of Tangier in abject terror. Only once prior to this does the audience see B try to train her how to deal with this type of event, but it’s blown off quickly, handled like a joke, and never addressed again.
For those ready to dig into the special features, there’re over 40-minutes of goodies about evenly split between featurettes and deleted/extended scenes. There is a total of six deleted/extended scenes, the bulk of which focuses on Stephanie’s time before she trains with B. Considering the speed the feature maintains to get through a lot of in the first half, there was a noticeable sacrifice to pacing to get there. These few scenes fill in a few gaps, but not enough to warrant keeping in the theatrical. It’s especially frustrating that the scene “Why Did You Come for Me?” doesn’t actually answer that particular question. For those wanting to dig into the character, there’s the almost eight-minute “Stephanie’s Journey” wherein the cast members discuss their thoughts on who Stephanie is and the internal process the character goes through throughout the film. The one frustrating bit about the featurette is how it explains, via the actors, Stephanie’s decision-making process which is less clear within the text of the film. If you enjoy the stunt work, which is a frequent hallmark of Rhythm, then the featurettes “Fight or Flight,” “Never Leave Second Gear,” and “One Shot Explosion” are the places to start. Personally, the fact that Morano mentions at the top of “Fight Or Flight” that the fights are visibly messy, lacking the cleanliness or precision of other spy thrillers, is a huge part of why those scenes work as well as they do. The last featurette, “Designing the Rhythm Section,” is fairly straight-forward as it briefly explores shooting locations and set design.
There’s a lot to like within The Rhythm Section as a twist on the spy thriller, focused on a newcomer who never really seems to acclimate to the life, especially with the spark of humanity Lively never fails to imbue Stephanie with and the direction from Morano that constantly places us with Stephanie’s sphere of knowledge. For their parts, Law and Brown are always stellar. Law brings on a certain believability as the wayward reluctant teacher and Brown always brings a gravitas to any character, especially important for his character, the enigmatic Mark Serra. The shame of it is that it doesn’t all come together in a manner which lingers. Sure, you’ll want to see more of Morano’s work and even see Lively take on another physical role like this one, but the film itself fails to stay in one’s memory. It’s a fine distraction for less than two hours, but that’s about it.
The Rhythm Section Blu-ray and digital Special Features
- Stephanie’s Journey (7:52)
- Fight Or Flight (6:09)
- Never Leave Second Gear (6:11)
- One Shot Explosion (2:17)
- Designing The Rhythm Section (2:38)
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (17:50)
Available on digital beginning April 14th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning April 28th, 2020.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.