The last few women-led action films have left a lot to be desired, specifically the sub-genre of white women turning to espionage. If you have seen Luc Besson’s Anna (2018) and Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow (2017), Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section will feel awfully familiar.
The story follows Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) who has succumbed to drugs and prostitution as coping mechanisms after her family was killed in a plane crash. One evening a reporter shows up to tell her that her family weren’t victims of an accident, but instead a terrorist plot. This sets her on an unexpected journey to avenge her family.
Despite some grave errors in the script, Reed Morano proves to be a very capable director who has an eye for creating an atmosphere for her narratives to flourish in. She is a very visceral director which helps her audience feel and engage with what’s on-screen. Perhaps, if the script were a little tighter this would stand head and shoulders above the films mentioned before. Sadly, Mark Burnell (who wrote the screenplay based on his novel) is incapable of adapting what I assume is a dense book about a woman’s identity crisis following traumatic loss in the vein of The Bourne Identity.
Blake Lively does the best she can, but even she can’t bring those themes and character arch to life in any meaningful way. Although, I will say that Lively and Morano do a good job in presenting Stephanie in a realistic manner. There is an imperfection about her that is rather refreshing when juxtaposed with the slick and sexy transformation of the titular characters in Red Sparrow and Anna.
How Stephanie comes to be where she ends up is never really addressed. What good did it serve our reporter to tell Stephanie of his investigations, let her stay in his home with full access to everything, knowing that she is slightly unhinged and taking drugs? No rational person would entertain the idea of allowing a grieving person, who has already made a some bad decisions, to have access to such information. And, from that point forward there are other men who just trust Stephanie, who outright fails at every opportunity to get the job done – sometimes with grave consequences.
The film is ultimately about the masks one wears to hide who they are or escape from the past. In this case, Stephanie is unable to go back to who she was because she inadvertently led her family to board a plane that was set to blow up. She can’t be her happy self anymore so she chooses a life of misery and being treated like she’s worthless. When presented the opportunity to get revenge, this opens the door to wear other masks, as is the perk of being in espionage. Except, this film never really settles down to explore this and becomes a somewhat cheap imitation of past spy thrillers that have done this very thing but better.
I liken The Rhythm Section to Anna and Red Sparrow because there are some tropes and cliches that are too similar to ignore. Starting with the prostitution and drugs, sleeping with questionable men, the wig changes, the shocking quickness of the development of their ‘spy’ skills – the list goes on. Plot details may vary and their motivations differ, but Jennifer Lawrence, Sasha Luss, and now Blake Lively are playing the same stereotypical femme fatale that should be retired at this point (Not everyone can have an Atomic Blonde). Also, Lively playing a British person is just as distracting as Jennifer Lawrence playing a Russian. At least, Anna had an actual Russian actress play the titular Russian spy, and is shockingly the most entertaining of the three films.
Needless to say, there is a lot wrong with this film, but what The Rhythm Section lacks the most is entertainment. That’s not to say that the film did not have potential to be great, because it did. However, the script is unable to escape the cliches or do something interesting with them. Despite valiant efforts from Morano and Lively, neither could do enough to make this a considerably better movie.
In a few weeks the year of great women-led directors will be kickstarted by WB’s Birds of Prey, which will be closely followed by Disney’s Mulan and Black Widow, and by then The Rhythm Section will have faded into obscurity.
The Rhythm Section opens in theatres on January 31st.
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa Abdi is a lifelong film student and aspiring film festival programmer. Her favourite genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and horror and her favourite director is Guillermo del Toro. She is madly in love with Eva Green and believes she should be cast in everything. You can follow Ferdosa on Twitter @atomicwick