‘Rhythm Section’ is about the making of an assassin – and, possibly, another cliched movie franchise

Blake Lively and Sterling K. Brown in “The Rhythm Section.” Paramount Pictures

By  The Washington Post · Michael O’Sullivan · ENTERTAINMENT, FILM 

‘The Rhythm Section” opens, more or less, on a gun (and silencer) pointed, somewhat shakily, at a man’s head.

After the familiar appearance of the on-screen title “8 months earlier,” we meet the owner of that itchy trigger finger: Stephanie Patrick, a once-promising student at Oxford now supporting a drug habit through prostitution in a sordid London flat. Stephanie – played by Blake Lively, gamely giving the sordidness her all – is entertaining a client (Raza Jaffrey) who just wants to talk, in this case about the fact that the plane crash that killed Stephanie’s family was because of not mechanical failure but a terrorist bomb.

The client is actually a freelance journalist – his business card literally says “freelance journalist” – and he soon welcomes Stephanie into his apartment, which is decorated like the lair of a serial killer, with walls filled with newspaper clippings and photos of the plane’s numerous other dead passengers.

So why has he chosen Stephanie, who, out of all the other surviving friends and family members of the crash victims, seems the least reliable person with whom to share this kind of information?

That is an excellent question. And the simple answer, if you manage to sit through the cheesy, predictable thriller – or if you have read the 2018 novel on which it is based, the first of the Stephanie Patrick Thrillers series by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay – is that there would otherwise be no story to tell.

That story, which jumps from England to Scotland to Morocco to the United States to Spain to France, concerns the making of an assassin – but also a book/movie franchise. 

Stephanie eventually finds herself in the company of the journalist’s clandestine source, a disgraced former MI6 agent named Boyd (Jude Law), who becomes Stephanie’s reluctant sensei in what can only be called Revenge Boot Camp. “You’re a cliche,” Boyd tells her in an example of a film critiquing itself. 

There, to prepare for the execution of those responsible for masterminding, financing and building the bomb, Stephanie learns hand-to-hand combat, mental toughness – the master making his pupil swim across a lake in the winter, risking hypothermia – and how to fire a gun. The film’s title refers to a firearms calming technique: your heart is the drums; your breathing is the bass.

Soon enough, Stephanie is ready for the field, dying her hair India-ink black and adopting the alias Petra. (Nikita and Lisbeth were, presumably, taken.) In the field, Boyd hooks her up with a colleague (Sterling K. Brown), an ex-CIA agent who becomes her lover.

“The Rhythm Section” was directed by Reed Morano, who did a nice job with the first few episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” but seems a bit self-indulgent here. When we first meet Boyd, for instance, we see only his boots, for something like five minutes. And despite the tale’s violent themes – innocent children are collateral damage – the soundtrack has a weirdly jaunty flavor, with old pop songs by the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley popping up at inopportune moments.

It’s not a morality tale, despite a perfunctory nod in that direction. Boyd tells Stephanie that killing someone is the easy part. The hard part? “Living with it.”

He also tells her something else about revenge that applies equally well to “The Rhythm Section,” despite its few moments of bloody fun. In the end, Boyd warns her, “it’s not worth it.” 

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1 1/2 stars. Rated R. Contains violence, sexual scenes, crude language throughout and some drug use. 109 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars, masterpiece; three stars, very good; two stars, OK; one star, poor; no stars, waste of time.

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