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"The Rhythm Section" Review

It's a mark of bad marketing when the first hint you have of a movie's existence is a TV commercial about a week before its opening. My girlfriend and I were watching Saturday Night Live at our respective domiciles and texting during the commercials and I glimpsed the end of an ad for The Rhythm Section featuring a short dark-haired Blake Lively staggering away from an explosion scene. "What the heck was that?" I texted. She hadn't been paying attention.

Later I looked it up and found it was some sort of revenge spy thriller whose opaque title referred to controlling one's "rhythm section", thinking of your heartbeat as the drums and breathing as the bass, to focus on the target when shooting. It's a dopey metaphor, but spy novels gotta spy novel. (It's based on a book whose author penned the screenplay.)

Lively plays an English woman whose entire family, parents and two siblings died in a plane crash. We see their idyllic lives during the opening credits which makes our next look at her all the more jarring when we see she's spent the three years since the crash plunged into the hell of being a drug-addicted prostitute. This time though her john (Raza Jeffrey) is only looking to talk; he's a freelance reporter who tells her the crash was actually a bombing that had been covered up.

Despite initially having him  tossed out of the brothel, she later contacts him and goes to his apartment where he has a room covered in photos of the crash victims and stacks of documents he says came from an ex-MI-6 agent code-named "B" pointing to the bomb being the work of a local college student. Acquiring a pistol from her drug dealer, she quickly locates the student in the cafeteria, but chickens out on killing him. He somehow managed to grab her bag and with the information inside, finds the reporter and kills him.

With no other options available, she goes to Scotland in search of B (Jude Law) and once she finds him, he grudgingly agrees to train her and after eight months she's ready for her first mission, to kill a man in Tangier who was involved in arranging the bomb to be on the flight.

Now this is where most movies would have Lively montage herself into a formidable killing machine a la Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Angelina Jolie in numerous action epics, or Anne Parillaud/Bridget Fonda/Maggie Q in La Femme Nikita/Point of No Return/Nikita, but instead she rather sucks at pretty much everything; getting beaten badly, chickening out because she can't bring herself to kill (except for one moment where she's suddenly Annie Oakley gunfighting like a champ) and relying on luck or outside intervention for most kills.

Lively has really come on in recent years as an actress, outgrowing her simpy late-teen ingenue image from Gossip Girl with her deglamed performance here, in 2016's solo girl-vs-shark The Shallows, and especially her crackling turn in 2018's trash-camp blast A Simple Favor (a must for fans of movies like Wild Things). She's smartly realized that passing 30 years of age requires transitioning from girlie parts to adult acting and she's got the chops; she's just let down by the material here.

While director Reed Morano (most noted for the first three episodes of The Handmaid's Tale) does a good job directing the globe-trotting action and drama with style and clarity - there's a "one-shot" car chase sequence which is pretty sharp - the whole endeavor is undercut by Mark Burnell's script. While spy stories are supposed to have twists, double-crosses, third-act reveals and whatnot, things get simply too convoluted and confusing with one character, an ex-CIA agent turned information broker (Sterling K. Brown) who should know everything about who he's dealing with seemingly bamboozled by her meager ruse as a presumed dead Russian assassin.

Once again, a poorly reasoned script makes everything disposable. If not for Lively's performance, I'd probably knock a couple points off and make this a skip.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.


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