With a title like “The Rhythm Section,” one might expect a movie revolving around a band or orchestra.  Instead, this is an espionage revenge story, without a single musical instrument in sight.  Based on the novel of the same name, the title references a metaphor used to calm anxiety.  “Think of your heart as a drum, and your breathing is the bass.”

A first-person viewpoint opens the film as a woman with a gun approaches a man from behind.  She intends to kill him, but there’s a slight hesitation before the screen cuts to “8 Months Earlier.”  One of the most annoying trends in modern cinema has struck again, the flash-forward tease!  This choice is supposed to generate tension via dramatic foreshadowing, but it always feels cheap and artificial.  It probably stems from off-the-cuff screenwriting advice which warns that “If something interesting doesn’t happen on the first two pages, agents will toss your script aside!”

The would-be killer is Stephanie Patrick, portrayed with uncharacteristic intensity by Blake Lively.  Three years prior her immediate family was killed in a plane crash.  Since then she’s coped with the loss by turning to a life of drugs and prostitution.  This form of slow suicide is curbed when a reporter (Raza Jaffrey) shows up one night with an infuriating bit of information.  The plane crash was actually an act of terrorism that the authorities have covered up and the perpetrator is walking the streets a free man.  This knowledge starts her down a path of discovery and reinvention that eventually leads her to an ex-MI5 operative (Jude Law) who is also looking for vengeance.   For the next few months, he trains Stephanie as an operative, building her up physically and mentally.  She makes considerable progress, but it takes more than just a couple of months to turn someone into a cold-blooded assassin.  Far too often in movies of this type, after the training montage, our protagonist becomes a superhero.   Not here.  Stephanie is rough around the edges, has doubts, and struggles with the morality of what she’s doing.  This vulnerability adds a level of humanity that makes each of her missions more engaging.

While there are some serious pacing issues in the film, Director Reed Morano employs some interesting cinematography.  Taking a cue from the novel which switched between omnipresent and first-person narration, the camera will occasionally switch to a first-person view putting us in the shoes of our protagonist.   This is most effective during a hectic, and sloppy, car chase sequence.  But the competent direction and performances can’t rescue the movie from a rather generic story and rushed conclusion.

The screenplay was adapted by Mark Burnell, the author of the novel, but it’s shocking how much the two differ.  The book serves as more of an origin story for Stephanie who appears in three more books by Burnell.  Her training is far more intense and is backed by a shadowy organization known as the “Magenta House” and the heroes and villains are more clearly, although cartoonishly defined.  One major improvement to the film version is Stephanie comes across as a stronger, self-motivated woman, as the book version of the character repeatedly fails the Bechdel Test.

Fans of 007 and “Atomic Blonde” will likely be disappointed by the slow burn of “The Rhythm Section,” but those in search of a more artsy femme fatale may find elements to enjoy.

The Rhythm Section