Revenge has largely been a male domain in Hollywood, but, lately, there have been plenty of movies featuring female characters seeking to right some very bad wrongs, from Widows to In the Fade to Peppermint. And now there is The Rhythm Section, a new revenge thriller starring Blake Lively, directed by Reed Morano. Unfortunately, this film ultimately provides neither catharsis nor satisfaction.
Lively, who first found fame on the television show Gossip Girl, showed the world that she had a serious side when she turned in a scene-stealing dramatic performance in Ben Affleck’s gritty The Town in 2010. She gets serious and dramatic again in The Rhythm Section, playing Stephanie, a woman who is on a harrowing self-destructive path in the wake of tragedy. We first meet her as a bruised and drug-addicted prostitute on the streets of London, suffering mightily from the emotional trauma of having lost her parents and brother in a plane crash. Into her life comes a journalist (Raza Jaffrey), who tells her the plane didn’t crash by accident, it was actually blown up by a terrorist and he knows who it is. This sets Stephanie on an odyssey to become a full-blown assassin, set on tracking down and eliminating every person involved in the bombing, all by herself.
If this sounds a little far-fetched, it plays that way, too. Beyond the believability questions, there are plot holes a mile wide that stretch the limits of imagination. The plot is skeletal and sketchy, with twists and villains seemingly drawn in as needed. While I loved the concept of this kind of character, one we’ve seen played by a man a million times, being played by a woman — and directed by a woman — I just cannot ignore the overused and lazy tropes that the filmmakers use to get Stephanie to where the plot demands she be. Jude Law co-stars as a cold and cynical former spy (is there another kind) who trains Stephanie to be a super assassin. The super-cliché training sequence isn’t the hardest part to swallow, it’s the fact that there is literally zero character development here. Literally the only thing we know about Stephanie is that she lost her family and is suffering from a massive case of survivor’s remorse. She doesn’t need assassin’s training, she needs therapy.
There is a case to be made that The Rhythm Section is not so much about revenge as it is about grief. Morano’s direction makes it very clear that Stephanie is carrying her grief around like a boulder, weighing her down, sinking her into oblivion. So who’s to say that this chance she has to exact some personal justice isn’t exactly what she needs, or at least thinks she needs. The problem is we have no idea what would motivate her because we have been given no chance to know her. To us, she is defined by her loss and that’s it. To be invested in her journey, we must be invested in her, and that just isn’t allowed to happen.
Instead, The Rhythm Section jumps right into the expensive-looking action and fight sequences. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson are famous for being producers of the James Bond franchise and, frankly, this movie looks and feels like not much more than an audition for the next Bond director. While I’d be thrilled if the next person to direct a James Bond film were a woman—and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be—I’d hope Morano has more to recommend her than The Rhythm Section, which is cold, predictable and unbelievable, even by Bond standards.
It does look and feel like a Bond movie, though, which ultimately hurts it. There’s certainly a kernel of an interesting premise here, but what begins as a commentary on the depths grief can plunge you and what lengths you would go to dig yourself out turns into a seen-it-a-million-times action movie with a logic-deprived plot and a hero who is a stranger. Lively gives it her all, but the gloom and doom of her character, who is mostly seen running from something or trudging through streets like a sullen teen, gets tiring. Points for being a high-octane, high-budget action movie directed by and starring a woman, but even that can’t save The Rhythm Section from hitting all the wrong beats.