When The Rhythm Section opens, Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is a drug addicted prostitute who lives in a run-down London flat. However, just three years earlier, Stephanie was a happy, middle-class college student who was close to her family and seemed to a very bright future ahead of her. That all changed when her entire family was killed in a plane crash. Stephanie was supposed to be on that flight but she had to cancel at the last minute. Her seat was given to another man, a man with a wife and two children. He was also killed when the plane was destroyed. So, now, wracked with survivor’s guilt, Stephanie is process of destroying herself.
One night, she is hired by a man named Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey). Proctor explains that he’s a reporter and that the crash that killed Stephanie’s family wasn’t an accident. It was a terrorist bombing, one that was covered up by the British government. The man who built the bomb — Reza (Tawfeek Barhom) — is still walking free on the streets of London. Working with two enigmatic government agents (played by Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown), Stephanie sets out to get revenge on the men who killed her family.
It took a while for The Rhythm Section to finally get released. Filming started in 2017, with the idea that the film would be released in February of 2019. Then the release date got moved back to November of 2019, which briefly led to the film being the center of some Oscar speculation. I know that I was certainly guilty of looking at that new release date and thinking, “I guess they’re going to try to push Blake Lively for best actress.” (Oscar speculation is frequently a very silly sport.) However, the release then got pushed back a second time, to January of 2020. January was traditionally where the studios dump the films in which they don’t have much faith. When the film was finally released on January 31st, it was dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences, the majority of whom didn’t realize that it would be one of the last major studio films to get a wide theatrical release in 2020.
And look, I can understand why the studio didn’t have faith in The Rhythm Section. I can also understand why critics didn’t go for it and why audiences didn’t recommend it. It’s not a crowd pleaser. It’s a rather dark and cynical film, one that suggests that revenge comes with a deep emotional and mental cost. Unlike a lot of female-centered action films, there’s no big crowd pleasing moments. Instead, the whole thing feels rather grimy and icky. Beyond that, The Rhythm Section is an oddly paced movie. Some of the action scenes are good but then there are other scenes that just seem to drag on beyond their expiration date.
With all that in mind, I still kind of liked The Rhythm Section. This is certainly Blake Lively’s best film performance and she gets good support from Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown. What I especially appreciated about The Rhythm Section is that Stephanie never becomes some sort of master assassin. With one notable exception, Stephanie is always a nervous assassin and often, her successes (and her failures) have more to do with luck than with any sort of special skill set. The Rhythm Section is not some sort of overly stylish kill fest like Atomic Blonde or Red Sparrow. Instead, it’s a film that suggests that death is never beautiful and I appreciated that. It’s not a particularly fun theme but it is an honest one. It also means that I, as a viewer, could relate to Stephanie in a way that I never can with other cinematic assassins. At its most effective, the film put me right into Stephanie’s mind as she tried to figure out how to get revenge without losing her own life.
Flaws and all, The Rhythm Section deserved a little more attention than it was given.