It takes about an hour for “The Rhythm Section,” a languid spy thriller starring Blake Lively, to finally come alive. It happens during a messy car chase in congested Tangier, in which there’s pretty much nowhere to drive, our hero frantically steering a stolen jalopy through the narrow dirt roads. She barrels into fruit stands, barely avoids motorcyclists and pedestrians, and nearly careens off one of the city’s unexpected cliffs.
The sequence serves as the shot of espresso the movie desperately needed, but it’s only a momentary reprieve from storytelling so familiar and calculated that viewers needn’t be masters of the Ludlum or Fleming oeuvres to predict the next revelation.
When we first encounter Lively’s Stephanie Patrick, she’s a lacerated, drug-addled London prostitute still painfully grieving the deaths of her parents and siblings, who perished in an airborne terrorist incident three years prior. She’s soon to meet the man that will upend her life: freelance journalist Keith Proctor (Raza Jeffrey), who buys an hour of her services so he can pitch her involvement in his work. Thanks to his confidential source, he knows the identity of the bomb maker, and is close to nailing down the “radical Islamist cleric” who planned the action.
One thing leads to another, and Stephanie finds herself literally at the feet of Proctor’s informant, a retired MI6 agent named Boyd (Jude Law), who lives on an isolated Scottish loch—and with whom she’ll need to work to exact revenge on her family’s killers.
We’re meant to marvel at Lively’s transformation from pitiful wretch to international assassin, as she jet-sets, under an assumed identity, to the cosmopolitan locales of many an espionage thriller—Madrid, New York, Marseilles. She indeed appears to be a different person by the midpoint, even if her wig choices aren’t the most flattering; in one selection, she looks exactly like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, escaping her own boulevard of broken dreams.
Mostly, I couldn’t get past the litany of shopworn spy-movie tropes that surround our protagonist: the walls of Proctor’s apartment, obsessively plastered with yellowed newspaper clippings; the inevitable training montage on Boyd’s freezing loch, overlaid with his bootstrappy voiceover commands; the conveniently discovered vial of poisonous snake venom discretely released into a drink that won’t be drunk. Boyd himself is a two-dimensional stock character—the brooding, unorthodox instructor with a haunted past—that even Law proves unable to inject with much charisma.
The most disappointing element of “The Rhythm Section” may be the uninspired direction from Reed Morano, who established her career in the aughts as one of the industry’s few female cinematographers, and who won an Emmy for her direction of the first three episodes of the first and best season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Granted, the script, which Mark Burnell adapted from his own novel, is weak tea on its face, but Morano’s sluggish pacing and purple, portentous direction only amplify its drawbacks. She lingers on uninteresting sequences well past their expiry dates, lulling us into complacency before bludgeoning us with cheap jump scares and intervallic bangswhich, if nothing else, should manage to briefly rouse the snoozers.
“The Rhythm Section” should have been a solid women’s-empowerment actioner, and God knows we need more studio films directed by women. Instead, it largely feels like a parody of itself, an unintentional call for the “Mystery Science Theater” treatment. As part of his gestalt training, Boyd tears into Stephanie: “Drugs, prostitution—it’s a cliché. You’re a cliché.” I couldn’t have said it better.
“The Rhythm Section” opens Friday at most area theaters.