Three years on from the death of her family in a plane crash, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) – a former Oxbridge student – has succumbed to a life of drug abuse and prostitution on the streets of London, exacerbated by survivors guilt, as she should have been on there – her family changing flights in order to enable her to join them. When she is approached by freelance journalist, Keith Proctor (Raza Jeffrey), she learns that his work on the events of the crash has uncovered that it was caused by a bomb; a device designed to kill a reforming Islamic activist, with the other victims being simply collateral damage.
With Proctor soon killed for his investigation, Stephanie travels to Scotland to seek the help of the former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law) who had been Keith’s chief source. Receiving training from Iain, she seeks financial support from the same couple who had funded the work of the two men. After a few months of training, she sets out to bring down the chain of people responsible for the deaths of her family members.
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The Rhythm Section is a mere 109 minutes, but it could easily have been 40 minutes or so longer. The film lacks pace and urgency. Much of this stems from a dour tone, in a film that can’t decide whether it wants to be an examination of grief, a precursor to an action franchise, a wry look at ‘faking it until you make it’, or a globe-trotting adventure. All of these styles are suggested by the material, but the film then falls down by having Stephanie constantly remembering her family. Fine, but we never meet the family, and see merely a few flashbacks to a family dinner and photos being taken. This is the presentation of a franchise archetype, not a character: grief is a characteristic, rather than an emotion to be shared and empathised with by the audience. The film starts in far too dark a place, however, for Patrick to be that action hero. The depiction of the house in which she plies her trade as a sex worker is far too grim to lend itself to that type of movie. Exacerbating this is an erratic soundtrack that moves between Eastern influences and then lurches suddenly in 1960s pop music at seemingly random intervals.
The character of Proctor arrives and takes Stephanie away from this before we really get an opportunity to learn who she is, racing us into a plot that then immediately stalls into the overlong initial London-based section of the film. By film’s end, everything from act one really does feel a distant memory. The Boyd character’s motivation (a strong one, as it turns out) is presented too late in the story to allow us to avoid the feeling that he is giving up months of his life for someone he doesn’t know, and in whom he has no investment.
The film has all the correct ingredients to address this, but presents them in the wrong order. So we are left with a story that lacks the character work or the demonstration of family bonds to be truly moving and engaging, but any of the sense of action and excitement that could lend itself to a gritty franchise – a second set of world-travelling adventure stories from EON Productions, home of the James Bond series.
On a more positive note, Blake Lively is convincing as a Brit, and demonstrates admirable commitment to a vanity-free role. When we first meet her (bad wig notwithstanding) she looks haggard, beaten down by life, and unrecognisable from the beautiful woman known to audiences, and featured in flashbacks to that family dinner. It takes a great deal of the film’s running time for her to begin to find herself, and for the character to regain health and confidence. She is convincing as a lady with the toughness to make this work against the odds. The film doesn’t revert to making her an object of desire once she is out in the field. Only a single scene leverages her looks in any way, with costume choices otherwise being about what is needed to blend into different crowds and environments.
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The biggest flaw with any plans there may have been to use the Stephanie Patrick character in an ongoing franchise, is that the sole standout is her relative lack of training. We have had emotionally and physically damaged leads before, but the general point is that, once challenged, their fully-developed skill set kicks in. Stephanie learns only enough to look convincing, with Iain telling her that to get her fully trained would take her into old age. The rough edges add tension to scenarios, and give action scenes a fresh spin, without ever short-changing the character or making it look like a parody. As a series develops though, it is to be imagined that those edges would disappear, as she gained experience and the ability to play to her strengths.
This leaves The Rhythm Section as a comparatively low budget (and definitely under-promoted) curio. Pacing aside, the film is attractive to look at, and very well-performed. That said, it offers nothing of which audiences are likely to be screaming out for more. For a studio with one viable property – one for which they have produced relatively little content in the last decade – that is a disappointment.