Movie Review -- January Produces Another Action Dud with 'The Rhythm Section'
It isn’t always fair to compare a new film or franchise to an existing one, since every movie that eventually went on to become a series or cinematic universe had to start from somewhere. But in the case of The Rhythm Section, the comparison is half the marketing. Every trailer, radio ad, and bus stop promoting The Rhythm Section reminds us that it’s from the ‘producers of James Bond,” which in this case speaks volumes. Including this film, Eon Productions has only produced a total of three non-James Bond films. So when they’re dropping their third ever non-Bond movie in the January graveyard, short months away from the release of the 25th Bond film, that’s a bad sign right off the bat.
Three years ago, a plane crash killed Stephanie Patrick’s (Blake Lively) family. Once an Oxford student, now Stephanie is a drug-addicted prostitute who encounters a journalist (Raza Jaffrey) who tells her that the crash wasn’t an accident. She sets off on a revenge plot that involves training with agent Ian Boyd (Jude Law), assassinating members of a terror cell… I mean, this all sounds exciting, right? Revenge story, spy intrigue, action packed set pieces? Prepare to be disappointed -- this is an unforgivably boring movie. Once the boredom sets in, the elements of the plot that are distasteful (This film certainly has a lot of men beating Blake Lively up as they do the bidding of an Islamic fundamentalist bomb maker) become the focal point, not the background radiation of an otherwise exciting romp.
The biggest issue with The Rhythm Section is a screenplay based off a book, written by the novel’s author, Mark Burnell. I’ve never read the book and can’t speak for its quality, but after the Fantastic Beasts films, I have a general theory that authors adapting their own work for the screen is a recipe for meandering movies that don’t properly distill the language and prose of a novel into a visual experience. A lot of characters speak exclusively in exposition, long scenes of walking amount to nothing, and the movie only feels like it’s starting a solid third into the runtime. Considering the many flashbacks we get of Stephanie’s family in the first few minutes of the movie, you’d think the screenwriter would have eventually realized they could be used to speed up the glacial pace of the plot.
I alluded to the distasteful elements of the story earlier, but as I was watching, I couldn’t help but think of Rami Malek’s interviews regarding No Time To Die, the next installment in the James Bond franchise. He stated that he told producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson that he would only be interested in doing James Bond as long as he wouldn’t be cast as a stereotypical Middle Eastern terrorist.
While that’s understandable on its own, the wisdom is underlined by The Rhythm Section, where Tawfeek Barhom’s one-note villain barely gets any development beyond other characters telling Stephanie how horrible he is. It’s too bad you apparently have to win a Best Actor Academy Award before you can say “Hey, can I please not play a terrorist?” as a Middle Eastern actor in a major blockbuster film. As for the multiple fights between an undertrained Stephanie Patrick and the usual cast of action movie thugs, with lackluster stakes and shaky motivation, it ends up feeling like I’m watching men attacking and hurting Blake Lively for no reason. As a result, the action feels gross and uncomfortable.
Beyond the script, it’s immediately apparent that Blake Lively is woefully miscast. I like Blake Lively for the most part, but here she’s given nothing to work with from the script and has no similar role history to bring something on her own. The result is she stares blankly for most of the movie -- there’s the blank altered state stare, the blank stare of remembering her family, and the blank stare she makes when walking through colorful locales doing her best Daniel Craig impression. It’s not just Blake Lively though, Jude Law’s paycheck cashing phase of his career is clearly in full swing here. I never thought I’d say this, but after The Gentlemen, I can’t help but wonder ‘where is Hugh Grant when you need him?’
Script and character problems are bad enough for a film, but considering this is the producing teams behind one of the slickest, action-packed, and polished film franchises of all time, the overall presentation of The Rhythm Section was a big disappointment. Apart from the script’s pacing, the editing seems almost hellbent on making the film feel as slow and trudging as possible. As soon as the opening titles, where slow motion flashbacks without context cut between white title cards on a solid black screen, you get more of a sense of a student film than something from Eon Productions.
Action is staged in the most utilitarian and boring ways imaginable, including a car chase that’s filmed as a single take, with the camera whipping around in the passenger-side seat between looking out the windshield, rear window, and at Blake Lively. Compare that to any of the Daniel Craig car chase sequences, and you’ll immediately see the issue -- car chases are made exciting in the edit, and if you don’t cut, it’s going to be boring. I was also surprised by how dull the cinematography was, considering cinematographer Reed Morano directed the film. The picture was as muddy and dull as the script.
Jude Law’s last line to Stephanie Patrick is “I never want to see you again,” and I concur. The Rhythm Section is the first of a series of novels starring Patrick, and I really hope Eon decides against trying to develop this series into a companion franchise for James Bond. Director Reed Morano specifically said that wasn’t her intent, but given we’re in a producer-driven, franchise filmmaking era of film history, I’ll instead refer to producer Barbara Broccoli’s take on the subject. In response to repeated questions about whether a woman could play James Bond, Broccoli stated that the answer is to create a badass female character like Bond instead. I don’t necessarily agree, but if that is truly her solution to the question, she should negotiate the rights to Atomic Blonde and retire Stephanie Patrick.