“Right now, you’re just a cliche,” Jude Law as an unnamed MI6 Secret Intelligence Service operative tells Blake Lively’s hurt Stephanie Patrick, about halfway through their training montage. He’s not wrong. In fact, both of them are cliches: the gruff, secretive master hiding a wounded past, the shattered young woman enlisting him to help her get revenge.
“The Rhythm Section” isn’t self-aware enough to pass that line off as a joke, but despite a lack of character, “The Handmaid’s Tale” director Reed Morano manages to inject some life and style into the proceedings. It’s not all that memorable, but it’s enjoyable all the same.
Introduced holding a gun up to a mysterious man’s head, the movie flashes back six months to London, where we meet Stephanie. Lively does her best Carey Mulligan impression as an Englishwoman who’s descended into a life of prostitution and drugs in the wake of a plane crash that killed her family. She’s jolted out of it when a reporter tells her that the crash wasn’t an accident but instead a bomb planted by an Islamic terror cell.
The man responsible has been walking free around London courtesy of MI6, who knows it was him yet isn’t doing anything. Naturally, she wants revenge. Since the movie wants to stay somewhat anchored to reality, she isn’t very good at actually doing the murder thing. Hence the introduction of Jude Law’s mysterious B (whose name we learn in the credits is Iain Boyd, unless I completely missed them saying it), found somewhere in Scotland. He’s a hardass who puts her through the works to be an intelligence level operative.
Of course, he’s got a painful past of his own. Overall, it’s not really that important to the movie. In the process, they link up with Sterling K. Brown, who plays an information broker, as Stephanie fully transforms into a super spy avenging her family and the others killed in the attack.
The main problem with the movie comes from Mark Burnell’s script (an adaptation of his novel). We are only shown snippets of Stephanie’s life before the crash with her family, who come off as pure memories. None of them actually feel like people. Sure we get a clip of them playing cards in the opening credits, but we’re never really given a reason to care about them beyond the fact that Stephanie loved them.
This extends to Stephanie herself: Lively does a fine enough job here — interjecting some one-liners and being believably freaked at how deep she’s gotten — but you never really buy the character as shown. Some of it comes down to the hair (her short cut really makes her look like Mulligan in a way that’s kind of distracting) and the accent (passable), but most of it is that the character remains flat throughout the whole movie.
All of the characters really just match up to archetypes, and some time is given over to the terrorists being against reform. In the end, it’s just hard to really feel invested in any of the events because the script never gets you to care about anyone beyond obviously saying “this is why they’re doing something.” Even the Islamic Extremism angle feels more tired rather than anything actively racist, though the Muslim characters certainly aren’t done any favors here.
If the movie’s script doesn’t rise above fine, Morano’s direction gives it a nice bit of energy. Her use of washed-out colors and tight framing that marks her “Handmaid’s” work shows up a lot, giving the misty English countryside a nice look. She overuses a fish-eye look to no discernible purpose, but not enough to ruin the movie. The violin heavy score from Steve Mazzaro feels urgent but never overbearing. As it goes on, the movie even has some rather thrilling action sequences.
Overall, “The Rhythm Section” demonstrates an above-average spy flick. It’s competent and gets the job done, but it’s kind of hard to really care about anything that happens in it or to any of the characters involved, despite some feinting toward the cost of a revenge spree. Even then it’s really just going through the motions without any real thought into it. Sometimes, all you need is just a few good scenes and luckily, “The Rhythm Section” delivers. Just don’t expect to be thinking much about it when you come out.