Every year we seem to get a different take on the “man/woman/child out for revenge for their family’s death” formula. Sometimes the person is a soldier like Frank Castle, or maybe they’re a cop like many Mel Gibson movies. Perhaps they already know karate and perhaps they must learn how to shoot a gun for the first time; though they all traverse a path worn down by the many trips before them, it can still be a solid jaunt if done well enough. The Rhythm Section travels the path of many before it, falling into some of the pratfalls of the genre, but it does it all under the sharp and skillful eye of director Reed Morano and with a fearless performance by Blake Lively, making it a path worth walking down.
In The Rhythm Section (just the third non-James Bond movie ever produced by Eon Productions), Lively stars as Stephanie Patrick, a once-promising young woman whose entire family is killed in an airline tragedy. Lively is living in this role in a way that is totally remarkable from the get-go and a bold and inspiring work of acting with minimal hiccups (sometimes she slips from her character’s British accent, but in her defense, she’s playing a character playing a character who is playing a character; layers, people). As Stephanie learns the truth about her family’s death it gives her a renewed purpose and puts her on a collision course with a darker world that brings a chance at closure.
The movie will win few points for its narrative, which is pretty par for the course. Morano’s direction gives this movie wings, however, and, while some movies are certainly told from the point of view of their lead character, The Rhythm Section wholly embodies this in a visual sense that others do not. This world is only shown to us as Stephanie sees it. Characters' faces don’t appear on screen unless she sees them. If her ears are ringing from an explosion then the sound is faded, and if her vision is blurred from her drug addiction it affects the camera lens. We’re not just audience members here, we are living this journey with her, and the camera’s movement and editing tells her story in such a deliberately crafted way that its style and methods give it extra points over other films in the genre.
This impressive direction of fully illustrating the character’s POV takes an even bigger step when the film’s action sequences play out. When Lively’s character finds herself in a fight-or-flight scenario, she tends to pick ‘fight,’ but in either case, the camera never cuts. Multiple breathtaking sequences of gritty, realistic fighting play out in real time with the film letting it all play out in one shot. It’s not like 1917’s “one shot” motif, but it’s a refreshing change of pace for modern action which tends to get cut-happy and trim fights to make it “look” better. Keep an eye out for its stellar car chase which manages to kick a tremendous amount of ass.
Lively is joined in the film by the likes of Jude Law, playing her secret-agent Yoda, and Sterling K. Brown as her contract contact when she takes on her assassin persona. The pair do a decent enough job pushing Lively’s Stephanie into uncomfortable territory, but this movie is The Blake Lively Show and they’re not on screen for longer than they need to be, which is a good thing. Frankly, Law and Brown’s characters only complicate the “plot,” which hits every beat you’re expecting (recall the title if you will and groan) and then some. What it lacks in narrative innovation it makes up for in its smooth and clever visual language.
In terms of “white person is haunted by their family being killed in senseless tragedy and goes out on a revenge tour,” you can do much worse than The Rhythm Section. Blake Lively delivers an absolutely fearless performance which is only stuttered by the occasional dip from her character’s English accent. Reed Morano delivers impressively slick direction for the film throughout, with ambitious staging and a command of action that is begging to be given a major franchise. It’s not without its bumps in the road as the film is dinged by its mostly paint-by-numbers plot and twists that it doesn’t outright earn. You can predict every story beat before it happens, but the wrapping job on it is stupendous.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Rhythm Section opens in theaters on Friday, January 31st.
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