Before it leaps off the cliff of cliché into the valley of banality, The Rhythm Section gets in a few good licks. Stephanie Patrick, the wannabe assassin played by Blake Lively, is sure as hell not cut out for the job. She scares easy, fumbles with guns, and can’t fight for shit. Charlize Theron’s Atomic Blonde would laugh her off the screen. But don’t mistake this busy-work thriller for a comedy. Based on a bestseller by Mark Burnell, The Rhythm Section is Stephanie’s origin story, covering her transformation from beautiful Oxford student into avenging angel when she learns from that the death of her parents in a jet crash was no accident. A journalist named Proctor (Raza Jeffrey) informs her that a radical Islamic terrorist bombed the plane on purpose. But it takes three years before Stephanie rouses herself to action. First, she buries her grief in heroin that she pays for by selling her body on the cheap. Yikes.
Lively gives everything she’s got to the role, including a credible British accent and a willingness to look like crap. Director Reed Morano, an Emmy winner for The Handmaid’s Tale, never misses a chance to light her fire. So what goes wrong? The problem is the script, written by author Burnell (he has four Stephanie Patrick novels in print to date), whose twists feel generic and narratively lazy. As Stephanie learns the ropes about the killing game from former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (a scrappy Jude Law) — he trains her at his Scotland hideaway — the film goes from unlikely to WTF in seconds flat. Sterling K. Brown shows up as some kind of assassin broker to add another spy angle the movie didn’t need.
Did producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, gurus of the James Bond universe, want to turn Stephanie into a female 007? If so, their efforts quickly go off the rails. Any psychological probing soon gives way to been-there-done-that action formula, with pop tunes pounding home the obvious. Burnell offers a fancy-pants explanation of the title: “Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass — keep the rhythm section tight, and the rest of the song plays itself.” Does it? Long before the movie drags to an end, you get the distinct impression that there is no one home behind the camera. Lively suffered an accident during production that resulted in lengthy shooting delays. It’s a shame no one took that time to fix the mess left behind. For instance, why does Stephanie wear different wigs that have no relation to the plot or to basic logic? You can feel the desperation of the filmmakers as they throw in fist fights, car chases, and, yes, more wig changes to give an illusion of momentum to a grab bag of botched ideas. No sale.