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In Theaters: THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020)

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THE RHYTHM SECTION
(UK/US - 2020)

Directed by Reed Morano. Written by Mark Burnell. Cast: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Max Casella, Geoff Bell, Raza Jaffrey, Richard Brake, Nasser Memarzia, Amira Ghazalla, Tawfeek Barhom. (R, 109 mins)

One of the rare non-James Bond projects for Eon Productions (along with recent and little-seen titles like 2017's FILM STARS DON'T DIE IN LIVERPOOL and 2018's NANCY), THE RHYTHM SECTION would appear to be an attempt by producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson (the daughter and stepson of Eon co-founder Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli) to start another franchise in the 007 vein, this one based on the initial 1999 entry in author Mark Burnell's series of "Stephanie Patrick" espionage novels. But this was a troubled production that started shooting in late 2017 and had to be suspended for six months after star Blake Lively suffered a serious hand injury while working on an action sequence. A disastrous test screening in November 2018 led to a round of re-editing and it was bumped from February 2019 to November 2019, then again to the multiplex netherworld of January 2020, where the $50 million film grossed just under $3 million, giving it the dubious distinction of having the worst-ever opening weekend for a movie bowing on more than 3000 screens. Though it's based on a novel that's over two decades old, it can't help but feel a little familiar after similar ground was recently covered in ATOMIC BLONDE, RED SPARROW, and Luc Besson's ANNA, not to mention Besson's 1990 classic LA FEMME NIKITA, the template for this sort of thing.







This probably shouldn't have opened that wide, and there's been some chatter that Eon, Lively, and cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano (who won an Emmy for helming the debut episode of THE HANDMAID'S TALE) never could get on the same page in terms of exactly what THE RHYTHM SECTION should be--a commercial action movie or a grim, downbeat revenge thriller--and that indecisiveness is apparent in the released film. It feels like big chunks of it are missing (indeed, Morano said in an interview that she ended up cutting co-star Daniel Mays' entire performance--he's still credited on the IMDb page, along with several others who are no longer in the movie) and it's been whittled down to the bare bones. Logic is tossed out the window almost immediately, and Lively's Stephanie Patrick is put in situations that might fly in a comic-book style scenario like LA FEMME NIKITA or ATOMIC BLONDE but not in something that starts gravely serious and involves the aftermath of a terrorist attack. The globetrotting story opens in Tangier as Stephanie is about to take out her latest target, but then cuts back to eight months earlier, when she was calling herself "Lisa," and was a junkie working in a skeezy brothel in London. Freelance journalist Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) has discovered her true identity and knows her past and what sent her on this path of self-destruction: her mother, father, sister, and brother were killed in a plane crash three years earlier in what was officially declared "mechanical failure." But that was a cover-up and Proctor knows the truth: a bomb took it down, a grandiose radical Islam message sent as part of a plot to assassinate one passenger: the anti-terrorism activist son of wealthy Suleiman Kaif (Nasser Memarzia), who suspected the official story was bullshit and has been funding Proctor's secret investigation.


Proctor lets Stephanie crash at his flat, where she researches all of his findings while he's out and sees the bomb maker was a currently-enrolled college student named Mohamed Reza (Tawfeek Barhom). She buys a gun (along with some heroin), goes to the university, looks around for a few seconds, finds him in the student union and stares him down, but she's unable to pull the trigger. A spooked Reza and his two associates walk off with her backpack, and by the time she gets back to Proctor's flat, his research is destroyed and he's lying on the bathroom floor with a bullet in his head. After a quick glance at Google Maps on her phone, she manages to pinpoint the exact location of "B" (Jude Law), the mysterious ex-MI6 agent who's been doing the intel for Proctor. She travels by bus and then hoofs it to B's isolated cottage in the middle of Scottish nowhere, where he's been living off the grid since a botched operation got him bounced from the agency. But he's not so off the grid that he doesn't already know that she foolishly confronted Reza and that Proctor is dead as a result. At this point, THE RHYTHM SECTION turns into an espionage and counter-terrorism KILL BILL, with B as a scowling Pai Mei putting Stephanie through a course of tough-love training after some quick FRENCH CONNECTION II detoxing, after which she's ready to be an assassin once she finds her "rhythm section," as B calls it, explaining "Your heart is the drums, your breathing is the bass." This training involves a few laps around the hills, a swim across an ice-cold lake, firing a couple of shots at a practice target and at B while he wears a bulletproof vest, and an impromptu brawl in B's kitchen, after which she knees him in the balls and asks him if wants some tea.


THE RHYTHM SECTION cuts a lot of corners, especially once B informs her that Reza was employed by an elusive terrorist mastermind known as "U-17," and puts her in touch with Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), an ex-CIA agent-turned-international assassination broker. Serra believes she's a presumed-dead freelance German hit woman named Petra Reuter, and he has the names of all the people even tangentially-connected to the airplane bombing, sending "Petra" everywhere from Madrid to Tangier to NYC to Marseilles to wipe them all out. The ultimate target is the mysterious "U-17," whose surprise reveal is anything but. It's never plausible for one second that Stephanie can handle herself in this dangerous world, or why Proctor would leave a sketchy, erratically-behaving drug addict in his flat all day while he's out working, even after he catches her taking money from his wallet. It only happens because there's no movie he doesn't leave her alone to raid his files. Also, every time she shows up somewhere, she manages to already be in someone's residence, leaving it a mystery as to how she acquired the necessary stealth skills to break into everything from Kaif's presumably heavily-guarded palace (she's just already there in his dining room) to the second-story Tangier apartment of Lehmans (Richard Brake), the U-17 associate who planted the bomb on the plane, and who's got guys standing outside at the building's only entrance. The film moves fast enough that it hopes you don't ask any questions like this, or like why, in one phone call to B, Stephanie calls him "Boyd," when she--and we--have never been informed of his real name, which he must've told her in a scene that's been cut. There are some OK action sequences, and Morano does pull off a decent CHILDREN OF MEN-style car chase with a bunch of whip-pans to hide the edit points in the "single take" illusion. At the end of the day--and yes, the door is left open for a sequel that's all but certain to never happen unless this ends up being a surprise blockbuster in the Asian market--all THE RHYTHM SECTION really has going for it is a convincingly gritty and extremely committed performance by Lively, who gives it exponentially more than she'll ever get in return, and she had the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones to prove it. There's even three medical professionals credited in the end credits crawl as "Ms. Lively's injury physiotherapists."



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