THE RHYTHM SECTION review by Shyam Vedantam – Blake Lively gets down and dirty for revenge

THE RHYTHM SECTION review by Shyam Vedantam – Blake Lively gets down and dirty for revenge

For those who are unaware, THE RHYTHM SECTION is the first in a trilogy of novels by Mark Burnell (the first one being published in 1999). The trilogy follows Stephanie Patrick, a woman on a self-destructive path as a prostitute and drug addict after the death of her family in a plane crash. She then discovers that this was no accident, but the actions of a terrorist organization. She becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on the people who have seemingly made her life meaningless. Reviews of the novels seem positive – good characterization, fast pace, engaging twists and turns. It’s easy to see how these novels could be adapted into successful films, like the next James Bond or Jack Ryan.

Blake Lively takes on the principal role of Stephanie Patrick. An underrated performer, she shows the vulnerability and weakness of the character. She has a gaunt physique because she doesn’t care about her life. Yet, her fight scenes are believable in their physicality – she doesn’t overpower anyone, and they are dogged fights showing how inexperienced the character is at her new job. Perhaps the indefinable quality of a “movie star” is the ability to carry a bad screenplay or be so magnetic that the screenplay is almost beside the point; it is not her fault that this film doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t necessarily save it. As a side note, she adopts a British accent for the role, but it isn’t too distracting.

Other well-intentioned actors turn in decent turns as well. Raza Jaffrey as Proctor, the independent investigative journalist that starts her journey, is wholly believable. Jude Law is believable as the ex-MI6 agent who trains Stephanie; Law and Lively have a fight scene largely shot in long takes that is funny, engaging, and beautifully done. Sterling K. Brown is an information dealer among these rogue organizations. Unfortunately, he seems miscast or misused. Not to put Brown in a box, but he is at his best when he can be emotionally powerful, bubbling/seething with an emotion. However, here, he is largely understated and withdrawn. It feels like asking Criss Angel to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Reed Morano directs this film, after previous largely journeyman work as a cinematographer on “Divorce,” “Vinyl,” “Beyonce: Lemonade,” and THE SKELETON TWINS. Visually, there is some interesting work here. The choreographed fight scene (between Law and Lively), juxtaposed against the rudimentary (but more believable) fight scenes Lively goes on to have, shows that Morano has different pitches. She has some beautiful establishing shots and ways she frames her actors at times. She does have some missteps. Morano leans on some objectively good classic songs on occasion, contrasting their pop nature against a bleak visual scene; she unfortunately uses this device too many times.

However, the screenplay by Mark Burnell just doesn’t cut it. To his credit, he self-edits some of the somewhat outdated femme-fatale aspects of his original novel to have a more straightforward screenplay for a film. Unfortunately, every 20 minutes or so, an event, decision, or piece of information gets dropped onto the viewer without it making logical sense. This is always detracting from the film experience. Add to this characters that don’t feel fully lived in, and it isn’t a recipe for success. At a runtime of 1 hour and 49 minutes, the film could have easily cut off 30 minutes and replaced that with better character work or exposition. In its current rendition, it starts off a little slow before getting to the point, and then moves too quickly. Events start happening without feeling earned or set up to build tension properly. Twists at the end do not pay off as well as they likely did in the novel.

For fans of the novels, there will probably be some value in seeing characters brought to life. There is fun to be had with a mid-budget thriller (THE ACCOUNTANT, JOHN WICK, GONE GIRL, etc). Unfortunately, THE RHYTHM SECTION feels like listening to chords without the melodies and counter-melodies that make a song truly worthwhile.

THE RHYTHM SECTION lacks brass, woodwind, or percussion sections – ultimately a rote
imagining of an international spy thriller novel. Rating – 3.5/10

THE RHYTHM SECTION opens January 31, 2020.

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