The Rhythm Section

 

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A routine revenge thriller is given genuine texture thanks to smart directorial choices and a terrific central performance.

   

The Rhythm Section

Atomic chameleon: Blake Lively 

 

The title refers to the section of the body that controls our breathing and heartbeat. “Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass,” Stephanie Patrick is instructed. “You can’t panic when your breathing is under control and you’ve got your pulse in check. It’s not physically possible… Keep the rhythm section tight and the rest of the song plays itself.” Stephanie really needs some control. In another life, she was the rhythm section of a loving family. And then she lost them all – and her sense of purpose – in a plane crash over the Atlantic. It was a flight that she, too, should have been on. When everything that one has built is pulled away from under you in an instant, how do you proceed?

 

Nominally a revenge thriller, Reed Morano's The Rhythm Section is more importantly about the possibility of reinvention. When we first find Stephanie, she is making ends meet by selling her body for cash and dulling the subsequent pain with heroin. She is a physical and emotional mess. Then a stranger enters her life and reminds her where she comes from. Worse, he drives home what she has lost. But the stranger, an investigative journalist, also brings news: the plane was brought down by a terrorist bomb. Suddenly, the prospect of vengeance smells sweeter than heroin…

 

What follows, then, could have descended into a routine meat-and-potatoes potboiler. But just as ‘The Rhythm Section’ is not the obvious title for a globe-trotting revenge thriller, so obvious choices are constantly kept at arm’s length. Produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson – the duo behind the rejuvenation of the James Bond franchise – the film is directed by Reed Morano. Like her leading lady, Blake Lively, Morano is something of an open secret. Aged 36, she became the youngest member of the American Society of Cinematographers and two years later made her directorial debut with the critically lauded drama Meadowland (2015). She then won an Emmy for directing The Handmaid’s Tale. Here, Morano builds on her reputation by packaging a thriller with an off-centre sensibility that keeps it constantly interesting. Avoiding unnecessary exposition, she drip-feeds vital information via organic clues, while driving home the terrible collateral damage of terrorism.

 

Obviously, the film is pictorially compelling. The scenes set in the British capital feel like London, but never ostentatiously so. Likewise, New York takes on an otherworldly aspect. The film is not without its moments of dry, knowing humour, expertly delivered by Blake Lively, while the editing, sound and music are all skilfully calibrated.

 

Yet the film has proved to be a box-office disaster, which may be because audiences were expecting something bigger and breezier, or perhaps because the title is just not that sexy. It does sound like a companion piece to the highbrow A Late Quartet (2012), and Blake Lively is hardly a commercial certainty. However, the actress is terrific in the role and gives it her all – including a near-naked dip in a freezing Scottish loch – and adds to an impressive résumé, including such gems as Ben Affleck’s The Town, Woody Allen’s poignant and sassy Café Society, Jaume Collet-Serra's gut-churning The Shallows and Paul Feig’s ingenious, cliché-devouring A Simple Favor. The Rhythm Section itself is a superior and gripping diversion, even if it never escapes its generic skin. It’s also a timely example of the talent of yet another accomplished female filmmaker, who, if the commercial disappointment of her latest film doesn’t destroy her career, should move onto a more worthwhile project.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Max Casella, Raza Jaffrey, Richard Brake, Tawfeek Barhom, Geoff Bell.

 

Dir Reed Morano, Pro Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, Screenplay Mark Burnell, based on his novel of the same name, Ph Sean Bobbitt, Pro Des Tom Conroy, Ed Joan Sobel, Music Steve Mazzaro, Costumes Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, Dialect coach Marina Tyndall.

 

Global Road Entertainment/Eon Productions/Danjaq LLC/Ingenious-Paramount Pictures.

109 mins. UK/USA. 2020. Rel: 31 January 2020. Cert. 15.