To describe The Rhythm Section in the musical parlance it employs: The action movie has no sense of tempo, and no melody.
Directed by Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale, I Think We’re Alone Now) and based on Mark Burnell’s novel of the same name, The Rhythm Section uses the idea of the time-keeping percussion of a song as its gimmick to set it apart from every other revenge thriller out there. “Think of your heart as the drums, your breathing as the bass,” Blake Lively intones over the film’s intro. The motif is cheesy, but fresh. And, apart from one more mention early in the story, it’s never heard from again.
Lively, styled like Timothée Chalamet with a wibbly-wobbly British accent, stars as Stefanie Patrick, who sets out for revenge when she discovers that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident, but part of a terrorist plot. Along the way, she finds Iain Boyd (Jude Law), a former MI6 agent hot on the same trail who also teaches her the art of the “rhythm section.” With her newfound skills, she takes on the identity of an assassin who’s been presumed dead, using that cover to infiltrate the world of superspies and intelligence traders.
The self-seriousness with which Morano tackles The Rhythm Section serves the action sequences well; Stefanie’s fights are genuinely harrowing and anxiety-inducing to watch as rattling close-ups create a sense of claustrophobia. However, that tone clashes with the silliness of Stefanie’s supposed mantra, which almost seems parodic of such lines in other action movies, and makes the black holes where characters should be all the more evident.
The script, also written by Burnell, gives us no sense of who Stefanie was prior to her family’s deaths, apart from having had longer hair and been a top student at Oxford. Unhelpfully, she doesn’t have much of a personality following the tragedy, either: Her sole trait is trauma. She falls into drugs and prostitution before being spurred to get revenge, which another character describes as a cliché, as if acknowledging it would make it acceptable.
And, like her “rhythm section” mantra, the one thing that briefly makes Stefanie compelling — that she isn’t actually a good assassin after being trained for just a handful of months — is forgotten as soon as it becomes inconvenient. After hemming and hawing over taking lives and struggling through fights, Stefanie suddenly becomes a pro at the assassin game. There’s no learning curve or consistency.
The same goes for what ought to have been The Rhythm Section’s most interesting diversion from the “revenge is a dish best served cold” formula. In a conversation with another character whose life was impacted by the airplane crash, Stefanie says that she’s not seeking to heal herself through her actions. She really is just seeking revenge. It’s an uncommon recognition of the eye-for-an-eye logic that generally propels such thrillers and how ultimately unsatisfying it can be — but it’s also rendered irrelevant by the film’s final moments, which furiously backpedal on that idea.
Even the smaller pleasures — the range of wigs Lively has to wear as her nascent assassin career takes her around the globe — are short-lived, and the film’s choice to drop in pop and rock music cues (some without a prominent sense of bass) only add to that sense of incoherence. To make matters worse, they’re often major-key songs laid over the movie’s minor-key score. Different keys can mesh, but it takes a sense of music theory, rather than just rhythm, to pull it off. The Rhythm Section has neither.
Which leads all the way back around to the film’s title. “The Rhythm Section” holds the promise of a movie like School of Rock or Sing Street, i.e., a story that will actually have something to do with rhythm. Morano and Burnell set the actual tone quickly by making Stefanie’s mantra the first thing the audience registers, but there’s no consistency to the characters or motifs, and dealing with that lack of a through-line feels like being jerked back and forth. There’s no rhythm to The Rhythm Section, and the melody is too weak to be memorable.
The Rhythm Section is in theaters now.