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Movie review: 'The Rhythm Section' brings imperfect but fresh cadence to action/thriller genre

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Sterling K. Brown, left, and Blake Lively in a scene from "The Rhythm Section."

(JOSE HARO, PARAMOUNT PICTURES/AP)

By KATIE WALSH | Tribune News Service | Published: January 30, 2020

Award-winning director and cinematographer Reed Morano has tackled dystopian futures in "The Handmaid’s Tale," the end of the world in "I Think We’re Alone Now" and devastating grief in "Meadowland." Her third feature film, "The Rhythm Section," combines a bit of all these themes, though it has a bit more kick to it than her prior indies. Starring Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick, "The Rhythm Section" is adapted from the series of thriller novels by Mark Burnell, with a screenplay by Burnell himself. If Jason Bourne were a grieving trauma survivor, you’d end up with Stephanie, and the film serves as her gritty origin story.

Lively has severely de-glammed herself in this edgy role, and when we first meet Stephanie, she’s a heroin-smoking London sex worker with a shaggy bowl cut. When a reporter (Raza Jaffrey) contracts her services to talk about the plane crash that killed her family, Stephanie’s rock bottom existence is thrown into chaos. With the knowledge that a bomb on board caused the crash, she sets out to attain revenge. She just has to kick the smack first.

There’s something rather enjoyable about watching such a wastoid try and turn herself into "La Femme Nikita," with the help (or harm) of a former MI-6 agent, B (Jude Law), who has valuable intel about the terrorist organization Stephanie’s seeking. He whips her into shape, and the first half of "The Rhythm Section" is essentially an exercise in body horror as Lively subjects her battered body to opiate detox, freezing lake water, clumsy fisticuffs and lots and lots of jogging.

When B sends Stephanie into the field on a few wild goose chases, posing as a dead assassin named Petra, wow, is she ever bad, and it’s honestly refreshing. Enough with the "Black Widow" super spies. For something really original, let’s see a green wannabe hit woman try to navigate a small car through Tangier while in a full panic. The willingness to let Stephanie be human and react as such brings a sense of reality and authenticity back to the action-spy genre, which has in many ways gotten too slick.

Morano focuses intensely on Stephanie’s subjective experience, using many hazy and handheld extreme close-ups on her face in the fight and action scenes, placing us inside Stephanie’s head, or at least as close as possible to her experience. It’s a fascinating exercise in shooting action and combat as something experiential and subjective. While it works sometimes, there are times when it doesn’t.

While Morano brings a gritty neorealist style with the help of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and Lively dirties herself up for cred, writer Burnell brings his story to the screen, though the adaptation is a bit rickety. We all know why Stephanie does what she does, but why does anyone else? Why does B recruit her and what is his goal? Why does Keith, the reporter, need her? Why does she enter into a dalliance with intended mark/reluctant ally Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown)? The storytelling here is a bit too economical, and the vague aphorisms Lively mutters in a serviceable British accent don’t clarify anything. "The Rhythm Section" launches Morano into a new world of action/thriller filmmaking, and her unique style is a welcome refresh for the genre. But while it certainly has a spirit, it often loses the beat.

"The Rhythm Section" is rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use. Running time: 109 minutes.