The Rhythm Section (2020)
Directed by: Reed Morano | 105 minutes | action, drama | Actors: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Richard Brake, Elly Curtis, David Duggan, Matilda Ziegler, Bill O’Connell, Raza Jaffrey, Robert Mullins, Ivana Basic, Irma Mali, Geoff Bell, Tawfeek Barhom, Jack McEvoy, Peter Newington, Nasser Memarzia, Amira Ghazalla, Sterling K. Brown, Albert Christmas, Maceo Oliver, Ibrahim Renno, Max Casella
Anyone who thinks of a music film when they hear the title ‘The Rhythm Section’ (2020) will be disappointed. The protagonist in this Reed Morano-directed action film is a woman crippled to the bone by personal tragedy who transforms herself into a killing machine to avenge those responsible for the deaths of her loved ones. An old-fashioned revenge film, after the book of the same name by Mark Burnell from 1999, in which the usually stylish Blake Lively exchanges her long blond hair for a short dark haircut and has thrown her perfectly styled outfits completely overboard in exchange for dingy, dark baggy clothes. Her dedication to making something out of this role is unquestionable; it seems like an ultimate attempt by her to show that she is not afraid of heavier, more demanding roles (which we also saw in ‘The Town’ (2010), perhaps her best role to date).
When we first meet her character Stephanie Patrick, three years after she lost her parents, brother and sister in a plane crash, she’s not in a good shape. Torn with guilt – she should have been on that plane too, why was she allowed to live? – she supplants the pain with drugs, which she buys with money she earns by working as a prostitute. To emphasize the contrast with her life before that tragic day three years ago, director Morano shows the viewer through flashbacks of memories of her family and of better times. Memories and an unimaginable pain can be read in Stephanie’s eyes, which have swollen from the many crying. Lively is completely absorbed in her role and Morano makes good use of that with many close-ups. The story is set in motion by investigative reporter Keith Proctor (Raza Jeffrey), who has tracked down Stephanie to tell her that the plane crash was not an accident but a terrorist attack, and that the true facts are being covered up by the government. Suddenly Stephanie has a clear goal in mind: she is determined to track down the person responsible for that attack and to crush it with her own hands.
Through Proctor, Stephanie comes on the trail of ‘B’ (Jude Law), a disgraced MI6 agent who lives as a hermit somewhere in the far north of Scotland. She asks him to educate and train her in order to accomplish her mission. ‘B’ does not immediately jump, but decides to take her under his wing. If you know that the producers behind ‘The Rhythm Section’ are the same as those behind the James Bond films (Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson), then you know where this film is headed: her search for the perpetrators of the attack leads Stephanie in all kinds of countries and cities, where she has to eliminate opponents of all kinds. In addition to London and Scotland, she also visits Madrid, New York, Tangier and Marseille. Lively can indulge in a dress-up box of colorful outfits, wigs and clothing to disguise her true identity. However, unlike James Bond, spying, tracking down and taking down Stephanie isn’t easy; rarely do her missions go the way she envisioned. And then try to save yourself again. It makes her more human than many other action heroes.
In that respect, it is a blessing that this film was directed by a woman who dares to expose the vulnerability of her central character. Reed Morano is a cinematographer by birth, as can be seen in the inventive camera work and some spectacularly shot action scenes, where a claustrophobic chase filmed from the car through narrow Moroccan alleys will have you on the edge of your seat. She is also handy with small spaces and she knows how to make optimal use of the frayed edges and imperfections of her central character. Unfortunately, the screenplay fails her too often in the second half of the film. Nota bene the author of the book, Burnell, is responsible for the script. He may have found it difficult to make choices about what he wanted to include in the film, so that ‘The Rhythm Section’ now makes very strange jumps at times, resulting in confusion, lack of depth and a flawed emotional connection with many (side) characters. Even Stephanie herself, despite Blake Lively’s excellent and dedicated performance, remains a mystery. And while that’s actually the makers’ intent, a little more information about her motivations and background would make it much easier for the viewer to identify with her.
‘The Rhythm Section’ has a strong start and boasts spectacular camera work and an intense performance by Blake Lively. On the other hand, in the second half the film loses a lot of persuasiveness, originality and emotional connection with the characters. Entertaining for fans of James Bond/espionage spectacles!