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'The Rhythm Section' Misses A Beat

A Super-Assassin Named Stephanie: Blake Lively looks pensive in <em>The Rhythm Section</em>.
Paramount Pictures
A Super-Assassin Named Stephanie: Blake Lively looks pensive in The Rhythm Section.

The heroine of The Rhythm Section doesn't process grief well. After her parents and siblings die in a plane crash, Stephanie Patrick quits Oxford — she was a "top student," of course — and becomes a drug-huffing hooker in London. Then she learns that the aircraft was downed by a saboteur, so she sobers right up and sets out to kill the killer. Even though she dropped out before completing her B.S. in vigilante justice.

Kidding. Actually, Stephanie was a "languages" student, which is fairly hilarious, since this is the sort of international thriller that pogos from Scotland to Spain to Morocco to New York to France without ever encountering anyone who doesn't speak English. That suits star Blake Lively, who demonstrates her fluency in multiple hairstyles but can't quite muster a British accent, let alone the German one needed to impersonate a Teutonic assassin.

Co-produced by Barbara Broccoli, heiress to the James Bond franchise, The Rhythm Section imagines a sort of freelance female 007. Of the various Bonds, Stephanie is closest to the one played by Daniel Craig, who takes a lot of physical punishment and displays the resulting cuts and bruises. She's not a trained superspy, though, and despite her lust for retribution, more than once she is reluctant to use her self-issued license to kill.

Stephanie wouldn't stand a chance against the movie's bad guys, in fact, if she didn't first high-tail it to the highlands for some brutal training by rogue ex-MI6 agent Iain Boyd (former pretty boy Jude Law in his new hard-man mode). Iain is the one who teaches Stephanie to control her "rhythm section" — her heartbeat and respiration — as she confronts an array of thugs and evil masterminds.

Next stop is Madrid, where Stephanie pretends to be that German hitwoman as she buys info from Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), a rogue ex-CIA agent. He sends her in the direction of the Islamic terrorist implicated in the plane crash, although scripter Mark Burnell — adapting his own novel — is careful to establish that the ultimate villain is a cash-hungry sociopath unmotivated by any sort of dogma.

The Rhythm Section was directed by Reed Morano (Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale), who deftly governs the movie's quickened pulse. Morano is a veteran cinematographer with a taste for deep shadows and hot whites, as well as bobbing handheld camerawork and jumpy cutting. (Even the soundtrack's odd mix of pop and rock songs, all oldies although sometimes in newer versions, is chopped and jumbled.) The scenes move quickly and sometimes unexpectedly, and there's almost no downtime on Stephanie's quest. Aside for one brief moment on a Mediterranean ferry, she seems to teleport between locations.

What are crucially missing from this scenario, besides sheer believability, are wit, ambiguity and irony. Tormented Stephanie has the emotional range of the sort of blithe roughneck once played by Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme, and for all her small failures she's seldom wrong about anything big.

A sharper script would have made more of Stephanie's lack of experience. The amateur avenger could easily be played by the various spy-war veterans she meets, but her feelings seldom lead her off course. The Rhythm Section suggests that when an action hero regulates her heart and lungs, she boosts her brain into overdrive. That's a dubious premise for a movie that's not exactly smart.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.