FILM REVIEW – THE RHYTHM SECTION. With Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Amira Ghazalla. Written by Mark Burnell. Directed by Reed Morano. Rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use. 109 minutes.
A good rule of thumb on movies based on books: they have to stand on their own. Any defense of a movie that begins with the notion that it would make more sense if one had read the book is an admission that the film doesn’t work. THE RHYTHM SECTION, based on the 1999 debut novel of Mark Burnell’s Stephanie Patrick series, doesn’t work.
After a murky prologue in which we see Patrick (Blake Lively) prepare to kill someone in Tangiers, we go back eight months earlier. It slowly becomes clear that Patrick’s family (her parents and siblings) have died in a terrorist bombing of a plane, and Patrick’s response was to drop out of university, take drugs, and become a prostitute. Enter Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), a journalist investigating the bombing, who wants to speak to Patrick.
How did he find her? The film doesn’t say. He then allows her to live in his apartment and leaves her alone there to rifle through his belongings and research. Why? If there’s any motivation other than that the plot requires it, the film is silent. One might say the writer was being clumsy in adapting the novel to the screen, but the script is credited to Burnell himself.
Patrick ends up at the remote outpost of “B,” an ex-British spy played by Jude Law. He begins to train her to be a killer for hire – another “why” that remains unanswered as he keeps pointing out how ill-equipped she is for the task – and she’s soon on the trail of not only the bomb maker, but those who were pulling the strings on the attack. The latter half of the film consists of Patrick getting information from an ex-CIA agent (Sterling K. Brown) and becoming more entangled in his affairs.
For this to work we have to believe that the drug-addled hooker we’ve seen earlier has learned how to be a killer, and that her contact with Alia Kaif (Amira Ghazalla) – whose son was the target on the doomed plane – provides her with the financing she needs for both weapons and international travel. This strains credulity to the breaking point, made worse by the fact that all of these characters are essentially ciphers.
Lively might have been hoping this was the launch of a franchise, but her opaque performance keeps us at a distance. Yes, her character is seeking revenge, but the transition from how she sank so low and then became an international assassin makes no sense, even if we see that it takes several attempts before she can kill easily. Law and Brown are similarly blank, with their characters’ motivations never made clear.
“The Rhythm Section” has some disconnected action scenes that perk things up for the moment, but mostly has characters we barely get to know carrying on in a fashion that sheds no light on their actions. Clearly the hope was that we’d want to see more of Patrick with further adaptations. Given the results here, that seems rather unlikely.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.