When we meet Blake Lively’s Stephanie Patrick, she is physically frail and emotionally shattered.
Stephanie is hooked on heroin and is turning tricks. Her body is covered with bruises, her skin has the color of corpse, her eyes are dead.
Cut to a few months later. A clear-eyed, badass Stephanie is on a bus, engaged in furious hand-to-hand combat with a ruthless terrorist — and let’s just say she’s a formidable foe, with a skill set that would merit a thumbs-up from an Ethan Hunt or a Jason Bourne.
Wow! What a transformation.
Now if that sounds like a ludicrous, logic-defying, insanely implausible, ridiculous premise for an international spy thriller, that’s because it IS a ludicrous, logic-defying, insanely implausible, ridiculous premise for an international spy thriller.
Despite a game performance by Lively, “The Rhythm Section” is a junk pile of missteps, from the convoluted screenplay that hops from locale to locale in Advil-inducing fashion to the overly stylized directing to the self-consciously “cool” oldies pop music selections.
This is a movie that carries itself like a “Mission: Impossible” film with a heavy seasoning of “La Femme Nikita,” but is all show, no go.
Lively employs a passable British accent as Stephanie, a top student at Oxford who was part of a close and loving family, as evidenced by gauze-filtered flashback snippets of her once idyllic life.
Stephanie was scheduled to join her parents and two siblings on a trip, but she backed out at the last minute.
The flight crashed, killing all 239 souls on board.
Three years later, Stephanie is a drug-addled prostitute, living under an assumed identity in a hell hole.
One night, a man named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) shows up and tells Stephanie he’s a journalist who has been investigating the crash and is close to proving it was no accident — it was an act of terrorism.
We know Proctor is serious about his work because his home office has those “crime movie investigation walls” that are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of the victims, and he has folders bulging with intel on potential bad guys. Sure, he could store all that stuff on his iPad, but where’s the fun in that?
Proctor is extremely forthcoming in revealing all sorts of info about the case, and that leads a gun-toting Stephanie to break into the remote, mountainside compound of one Iain Boyd (Jude Law), a former MI-6 agent who was relieved of his command after assassinating another assassin who had assassinated a colleague. (Say that three times fast.)
Boyd easily disarms Stephanie and takes away her drug supply, locks her in a cabin and leaves her to sweat it out for a few days.
Turns out Boyd shares Stephanie’s interest in taking down the mastermind monster responsible for the explosion of that airliner — especially because that same terrorist is plotting another attack.
You’d think Boyd might tell Stephanie to get healthy and step aside and let the pros take care of this, but nope! He decides HE’LL TRAIN HER so he can put her “in the field” as a spy/assassin.
I’m not kidding.
(The title of the movie comes from Boyd’s instructions to Stephanie to turn her body and mind into the equivalent of a rhythm section when she fires a gun.)
If you think Mickey was rough on Rocky or Mr. Miyagi took the long route in schooling Daniel in “The Karate Kid,” their techniques pale in comparison to Boyd’s methods, which include driving exercises in which his car keeps ramming into hers; telling her to strip down and swim across an icy lake; commanding her to shoot him in his Kevlar vest, and throwing her all over the cabin to teach her how to fight.
While she’s trying to kick a hardcore drug habit.
For the first half of the film, director Reed Morano constantly frames Lively’s face in jarringly extreme, screen-filling close-ups. Perhaps the intention was to highlight Stephanie’s washed-out, bleak look — but these shots take us out of the story and remind us Blake Lively still looks like an old-school movie star, even under such an unforgiving spotlight.
The soundtrack is peppered with anachronistic pop tunes such as The Mamas & The Papas’ “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never,” as Stephanie gets into all sorts of hot water while changing her hair color and donning wigs, even though she doesn’t really need the disguises, given nobody knows who she is.
Once Stephanie is unleashed from Boyd’s tutelage and goes undercover, “The Rhythm Section” shifts tones and looks more like a standard, well-photographed, international thriller.
Sterling K. Brown plays a former CIA operative who has carved out a lucrative career as a middleman who brokers deals between assassins and various wealthy and nefarious characters who order hits. The role is so undefined, it feels like there’s a whole lot of cutting-room-floor footage involving this character.
And just when “The Rhythm Section” has seemingly reached the limits of foolishness, a romance springs out of nowhere and makes NO sense — even within this story’s utterly senseless world.
Hey. Why take your foot off the gas when your movie is already over the cliff?