August 15, 2020  (Web Review)

The Rhythm Section

Paramount, 109 m., R, DVD: $29.99, Blu-ray: $39.99, April 14

Reviewer rating: 2.0/4

Most of today’s espionage movies feature heroes who can apparently overcome any obstacle with superhuman aplomb. The best thing about this one, adapted by Mark Burnell from his own novel and directed by Reed Morano, is that its protagonist is far from perfect. Unfortunately, the same thing can be said of the movie, a dreary John Le Carré rip-off that proves a dark, depressing slog—the very antithesis of a crowd-pleaser. After a brief prologue in Tangier, where buff Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is preparing to shoot a man named Lehmans, the film flashes back some months, when she was bedraggled, homeless, hooked on drugs and occasionally making money as a prostitute. The reason for her sad state is that her entire family died in a plane crash she had declined to take with them, and she is overwhelmed with grief and remorse. She assumes that the crash was an accident—the official line—until approached by a freelance reporter who has been investigating the disaster for a rich businessman. He tells Stephanie that the plane was brought down by a bomb planted by a terrorist named Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), who—for reasons not explained—the authorities decline to arrest. After the reporter is murdered, Stephanie tracks down his source, an ex-MI6 agent named Ian Boyd (Jude Law), who reluctantly agrees to train her to go after Reza on her own.  Boyd assigns her the identity of a dead assassin called Petra Reuter, and sends her to Marseille to meet Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), a notorious arranger of assassinations.  He gives her assignments to kill a sleazy businessman and then Lehmans, who was involved in the downing of the plane, and Reza. What could be amusing about all this—if Burnell and director Morano allowed even a whiff of humor to intrude into their grim, ultra-serious treatment—is not only that Stephanie is, until the twisty ending, being manipulated by virtually everyone she meets (especially Boyd), but that she proves terribly maladroit at murder, largely because her conscience keeps getting in      the way and she dithers at the last moment, giving her targets the opportunity to turn the tables. Morano nonetheless stages some viscerally exciting, if gruesome, action sequences, though all are so skittishly shot and edited that they amount to visual assaults. Lively gives a committed performance, embracing her role’s physical demands enthusiastically even when compelled to don some ridiculous-looking wigs and glitzy clothes as disguises, but everyone else, including Law, seems to be on auto-pilot. Though The Rhythm Section was only the first in a series of books by Burnell featuring Patrick, the movie is unlikely to spawn the hoped-for franchise about her further exploits.  Not recommended. (F. Swietek)