Rhythm Section, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/30/20 14:11:20
“The Rhythm Section” marks only the third time in the history of Eon Productions that they have made a film outside of the long-running and eternally successful James Bond films (the other two being the justifiably forgotten Bob Hope comedy “Call Me Bwana” (1963) and the more recent “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (2017)) and the first time that they have actively attempted to launch a new big-screen franchise. Those expecting the usual amounts of cheerfully over-the-top derring-do that the Bond films are famous for may find themselves taken slightly aback by the much darker and more serious-minded tone applied to this adaptation of the first in a series of books by Mark Burnell. Of course, those expecting the basic entertainment value usually provided by the Bond films may be taken even further aback by this grim, lethargic and painfully predictable work that somehow manages to take one person’s globe-spanning rampage of revenge against those who robbed her of everything that she cared about set against the background of international terrorism and renders it about as inertly as can be while still falling under the legal definition of a motion picture.The person in question is Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), a young Brit woman whose idyllic life is shattered one day when her family is killed in a plane crash. Devastated over the loss of her family and wracked with guilt over the fact that she was supposed to be on that flight herself, only to skip out at the last second, she spirals out of control and three years later, she has become a drug-addled prostitute when an investigative reporter (Raza Jaffrey) somehow tracks her down with a fantastic story. Not only was the plane brought down by a terrorist bomb in an attack meant to kill one specific person, the man who actually designed the bomb is still walking the streets of London and even attending engineering school. After being left alone at the reporter’s apartment (with all the pertinent files and information left out for easy access), Stephanie impulsively goes out, acquires a gun and heads to the school to get her revenge, only to freeze up at the last moment. Alas, this action has hideous consequences because when she returns to the apartment, she finds the journalist dead, the apartment trashed and all the materials taken away.
Luckily, Stephanie is able to figure out the location of the reporter’s chief source, Iain Boyd (Jude Law), an ex-MI:6 agent who left the game years ago after a mission went sour and has been holed up in a remote farmhouse in Scotland. She wants him to help her track down the bomb maker and, after putting up the usual arguments about how she is doomed to failure and how she will feel hollow even if she miraculously succeeds, he begins to teach her in the deadly arts. Eventually he decides that she is good enough to go out into the field for herself, assuming the identity of a famed German hired killer who has been missing and presumed dead for several years—let us just say that Iain can assure that the real person will not suddenly turn up—on an around-the-world journey to kill all the people involved with the airplane bombing. With a combination of sheer determination, luck and a seemingly endless array of stylish wigs, Stephanie shoots and stabs her way up the chain of command and along the way encounters colorful characters, including an ex-CIA agent turned information broker (Sterling K. Brown), a sleazy New York banker (Max Casella) whose attempt to juggle a business call to Tokyo, quality time with the family and a different type of quality time with a high-priced call girl (guess who) ends badly, in her quest for justice and closure.
“The Rhythm Section” takes its name from the musical metaphor that Iain employs to get Stephanie to focus her energies and find her center in order to accomplish the task at hand. (“Think of your heart as the drums, your breathing as the bass.”) As slightly tortured metaphors go, this one is passable enough, I suppose, but it is ironic that the film itself never finds its center in order to accomplish its own tasks. From what I gather, the screenplay, also written by Burnell, veers considerably from the original novel—this is perhaps understandable since it appears that, among other things, one of the plot points of the book, published in 2000, apparently eerily prefigures aspects of 9/11. That isn’t necessarily a problem—many of the James Bond films used precious little of the narratives they were based on outside of the Bond character and the titles—but what is a problem is the drearily derivative story that Burnell has developed around his central character and basic situation. What we have here is essentially a mashup of the Jason Bourne franchise and the Luc Besson cult classic “La Femme Nikita” with bits and pieces clearly derived from additional sources thrown in for good measure. There is hardly a single element on display here that hasn’t been seen before and usually better—even the big shocking twists are annoyingly predictable—and Burnell’s script never even attempts to bring anything new to the proceedings. The biggest problem is that Stephanie never comes across as anything other than a cipher—a delivery system for the expected outlays of brutal violence and interesting underwear—and when the script does begin to suggest potentially interesting aspects to her character (such as a flair for languages and an ability, borne out of her desire to escape her personal tragedy, to slip easily into other identities), it just as quickly dismisses them in order to get to the next empty-headed action sequence that Morano (best known for her Emmy-winning work on “The Handmaid’s Tale”) stages in the rough-and-ready manner of the Jason Bourne films but without any real feel for such an approach. The whole thing has the anonymous feel of a film made by a computer and one long overdue for a system upgrade at that.
Sadly, not even Blake Lively can figure out a way to may either the film or her character even remotely compelling. She is a wonderful actress—her virtual one-woman show in the wild killer shark movie “The Shallows” was both one of the very best turns by any actress in recent years as well as a master class in taking a potentially ludicrous premise and making it both plausible and genuinely relatable—and she does everything that she possibly can to make Stephanie into something other than a pawn being jerked around by the necessities of the plot. She is the best thing here but not even she can make her character into someone who is remotely interesting or believable. Instead, she comes across, much like the film itself, like a bunch of familiar cliches that have been jerry-rigged together and as she shifts from one identity to the next on her transformation from emotionally shattered junkie to lethal assassin, the only thing that really registers about her is the large array of wigs and hairstyles that she sports throughout. As for the rest of the cast, none of them make much of an impression, thought it is worth noting that enough time has now passed so that Jude Law can now be cast in the Grizzled Old Mentor Haunted By His Past role, a notion will no doubt come as being more than a little disturbing for certain portions of the audience.Whether you look at it as either an attempt to launch a new big screen franchise by the entity responsible for one of the biggest of all franchises or simply as an action/revenge potboiler being tossed out into the marketplace on Super Bowl weekend in the hopes of becoming the next “Taken,” “The Rhythm Section” just never clicks in the way that it was presumably intended. What should have been a taut international thriller laced with an actual human component is in actuality a poorly paced, awkwardly staged and dramatically ineffective stew of generic genre goods in which lots of stuff happens but not in a way that allows any of it to stick with you afterwards. Yes, the final scene does offer up the suggestions of further big screen adventures of Stephanie Patrick and her various identities but, at least in this current incarnation, there is a better chance of reviving the long-dormant “Call Me Bwana” franchise than there is of seeing her and her wigs anytime soon.
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