' ' Cinema Romantico: Middling Thriller March: The Rhythm Section (2020)

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Middling Thriller March: The Rhythm Section (2020)

Much was made of “The Rhythm Section” being produced by Eon, the same company behind the James Bond movies, suggesting star Blake Lively as a kind of female Agent 007. The real comparison, though, in part anyway, proves to be the “Bourne” films, or at least the hyper-stylized Paul Greengrass ones. Mark Burnell’s screenplay, based on his book of the same title, might be a pastiche of a thousand quest stories, an unlikely hero whipped into shape by a surly mentor in the name of vengeance, but director Reed Morano’s aesthetic is gritty, murky, unpleasant. If it is not always believable when a movie character claims revenge is not worth it since revenge movies tend to innately argue that it is, here revenge is portrayed as agonizing, nauseating work. “The Rhythm Section” plays more like a cautionary tale that could have been rendered as a darkly comic send-up of the genre, like “Haywire” in the key of Doom Metal, or something, if Morano had sought to push it and if she had resisted giving in to the genre toward the end. 

Having lost both her parents in a plane crash, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) has fallen apart, making money as a sex worker which fuels her debilitating heroin habit. These introductory sequences are “The Rhythm Section” at its most miserabilist, lingering over squalid, grainy close-ups of Stephanie in various states of disrepair. Even flashbacks to her past life bring no comfort as they are just yellowed glimpses, as if she is barely holding on to these memories, like they are about to fade entirely. But when an investigative reporter, Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), tracks her down to offer proof, based on a secret source, that the plane crash was, in fact, a terrorist bombing, Stephanie does not so much see a light as a black hole into which she can throw herself by seeking out the bomber and ending his life. Her haphazard attempt at doing so, alas, goes wrong, resulting in Keith’s death and sending Stephanie on the run. She tracks down his secret source, Boyd, ex MI:6, played by Jude Law like he has strained every last ounce of dapperness from his “Spy” character who, despite warning that violent recrimination will bring no solace, trains Stephanie into becoming an assassin anyway.

These scenes are almost funny. No, no, no, these scenes are funny, hilariously so, even if they don’t necessarily know it, Stephanie forced by Boyd to go for long runs and battering her in combat exercises, the revenge thriller mingling with the sports drama. Will she win the Big Game by killing the Bad Guy? Indeed, it would seem to suggest that anyone can become a world class assassin if they just WANT IT ENOUGH, though the movie itself simultaneously counteracts that message. If the title is cribbed from a breathing technique meant to induce control in moments of extreme stress - “Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass” - Lively rarely plays the role that way, alternating between distress and panic. Her fight scenes are chock full of sound edits evincing someone in over her head, yelps and screams accentuating every blow deflected and landed, like she is half a second away from being impaled or getting her neck broken. And a stunning mid-movie car chase filmed entirely from the passenger seat with a handheld camera jerking from Stephanie to the pursuing car to the road ahead for a brief moment literally suggests the whole experience is out of her hands when the pursuing smashes into hers and pushes it forward toward possible doom.

At the same time, though, this scene includes vehicles plowing through fruit cart vendors, identified in Roger Ebert’s dictionary of movie clichés, suggesting that Morando is not above trite action movie language. At various points pop music appears on the soundtrack, oddly incongruous with an otherwise downbeat kind of music score, briefly flirting with more traditionally cute pop filmmaking sensibilities, only to abruptly cut these songs off, less ironic counterpoint than not quite willing to commit to the bit. And even if trying to wrangle up notions of the emotional toll seeking vengeance takes and the collateral damage that can be inadvertently inflicted, “The Rhythm Section” can’t quite help but end on a would-be badass note, Stephanie graduating to Killer Extraordinaire complete with climactic drollery. Sigh. I much preferred the climax to that car chase when, out of options and manifestly in over her head, Stephanie just guns the car into oncoming traffic, hoping for the best, which does not come across like convenient escape but the rare action hero who truly has nothing to lose.

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