As a baby assassin, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is rough and not particularly ready, moving either too fast or too slowly. She’s three-quarters trained, and “B” (Jude Law) has done everything he can for her. That last 25%, when she finds out if she can actually put a bullet in someone’s head without pausing first, is down to her.
The Rhymth Section is based on Mark Burnell’s book of the same name (which I haven’t read) and produced by James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli. It certainly looks like they’re aiming for a franchise – there’s a series of novels, and Broccoli has stated that that women need their own female characters rather than recasting Bond with an actress.
I’m not convinced by the idea of a Stephanie Patrick franchise though, regardless of how well The Rhythm Section performs at the box office – as what works in this entertaining, believably frenetic but rather patchy thriller is down to Stephanie’s very human frayed edges, the kind of trait that gets polished away as a killer becomes a professional (and a franchise evolves).
Stephanie is a messy human who goes through a terrible experience which makes her even messier, before setting off on a sometimes-haphazard revenge quest, taking on another assassin’s identity while screwing up almost constantly.
Blake Lively shines as Stephanie, in all her muddled glory. She’s an effective and increasingly layered heroine, emotional but clever, her success depending on which of those two aspects of her is in the ascendent.
Stephanie is believable because while physically she has the ability to kick back and kick hard, emotionally she struggles with that last piece of the assassins’ jigsaw. And while she’s driven by guilt and a wish for revenge, it’s brains that provide her get-outs as she thinks on her feet, even when it’s her own mistakes that have got her into a situation.
Three years on from the plane crash that killed her parents and two siblings, ex-Oxford student Stephanie is mired in a life of drugs and prostitution. Between clients she sits on the loo watching the last video footage she has of her family, or listens to her mum on voicemail. Then a man arrives saying he just wants to talk (ha), before admitting he’s a journalist, with evidence that the crash was not due to mechanical failure but a bomb.
Wracked with guilt at not getting on the plane, Stephanie seizes her first chance at taking down those responsible, but immediately screws up in a massive way.
The journalist, Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) knowns who made the bomb, and who was behind it, and soon Stephanie is on a bus to the Scottish countryside and Proctor’s ex-intelligence services contact “B” (Law, who is perfectly fine as the taunt-her-into-success instructor, a role he could play standing on his head).
She’s still an unwell, unfit husk with the world’s worst haircut. “B” can turn her into a shooter and a fighter, with a better wig. But can she go that final step and turn herself into a killer?
The Scottish boot camp scenes are mostly as expected as Stephanie drags herself exhausted along paths, her mentor always ahead of her. It’s entertainingly unlikely, though there are some interesting shots from Stephanie’s point of view as she lies on the floor, the scraping of a chair as he pulls it towards her sounding like it could split her pain-filled head in two.
Soon he tells her she’s going “out in the field” and initially I thought he meant literally, into the heather and bracken, but actually she’s going abroad for her first kill. It was at this point I started to lose track of who she was going after and why, though her journey remains a compelling one as she tries to step up to her role as an assassin.
Stephanie isn’t the only one who lacks polish. Director Reed Morano portrays this whole world as messy, but artfully so. Everyone makes mistakes, and has to live with the consequences, stains that can’t be rubbed away as they move onto their next kill. The best laid plans fall apart, because they can’t plan for everyone else’s actions. There’s an honesty in the idea that you can only really expect redemption and closure to be about learning to live with what you and everyone else has done.
I have no idea how realistic this is as a snapshot of an assassin’s life, but it feels that way, and makes other, more stylised actioners look old-fashioned.
Despite The Rhythm Section‘s all-too-human heroine, the film felt soulless and I was sometimes both confused and bored; though it did remain lodged in my mind, so it may be the kind of movie that is more interesting in retrospect than while watching it. Both Law And Sterling K Brown, who plays ex-CIA operative and now freelance consultant Marc Serra, don’t have the opportunity to bring much to the table, though they’re always watchable in their roles.
The fight sequences are terrific though: urgent and frenzied, sometimes flailing, because Stephanie isn’t quite on the ball enough to predict what might happen. There’s also a thrilling one-shot car chase as Stephanie careers through the streets, her terror and desperation palpable as she has to think hard and think quick.
The grittiness of the story contrasts with an often witty score; her journey to Scotland is soundtracked with traditional fiddle music, a trip to Marseilles with a jaunty French tune.
We don’t find out much about Stephanie’s background, though in gradually revealed snippets we discover she’s always been messy and a bit thoughtless, thinking of what she wants then, rather than planning. It makes the Stephanie we see, changing in the face of life’s onslaughts, relatable even as she’s wielding a gun.
Ending spoiler below (scroll down).
Watch the trailer now and scroll down for more on that adrenaline-fuelled car chase:
Car chase clip:
Car chase featurette:
Serra is actually behind the bombing of the plane that killed Stephanie’s family. Stephanie realises this and kills him.