“The Rhythm Section” is a really strange title for a globetrotting spy thriller – it honestly sounds more like a sequel to “Whiplash” than a middling, convoluted secret agent pot-boiler – though most everything else about the fitfully intriguing Blake Lively action movie leans toward conventionality.
With screenwriter Mark Burnell adapting his own novel, “Rhythm Section” (★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) mines the familiar world of female assassins out for revenge that we’ve seen in “La Femme Nikita” and “Peppermint.” Lively pulls off one of her best movie roles so far – ranking up there with her surprisingly delicious shark flick “The Shallows” – and is surrounded by plenty of visual spectacle, yet is waylaid by a narrative that lacks excitement. Even the twists seem painfully ordinary.
The movie does change up the spy genre by exploring a somewhat minimalistic side, at least at the start. There’s almost no dialogue as we’re introduced to Stephanie Patrick, a former top Oxford student and now heroin-addicted British prostitute who lost her entire family in a plane crash that she was supposed to be on, too. Director Reed Morano (an Emmy winner for “The Handmaid’s Tale”) silently shifts from Stephanie’s happy memories with her mom, dad and brother to her complete emotional shutdown after the tragedy.
Three years later and still obsessed with the incident, Stephanie finds out from a journalist (Raza Jaffrey) that it was actually an act of terrorism. Wanting to kill everybody involved, she meets former intelligence operative Iain Boyd (Jude Law), who gives her a crash course in no-nonsense espionage training.
Stephanie goes undercover, traveling from Madrid to Tangier to Marseille, and assumes the identity of an enigmatic global assassin named Petra (who’s actually dead but no one ever found a body!) plus gets involved with Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), an ex-CIA information broker.
Lively is game for the role, showcasing a wide range of emotions and action-film moves, and some of the best stuff in “Rhythm Section” is the push-and-pull dynamic between Stephanie and Iain, her spycraft Mr. Miyagi. She asks how soon she’ll be an ace fighter, and he quips, “Your menopause will be a distant memory,” though the learning curve does end up being rather impressive. (Unlike Law, Brown – whose mere presence often makes everything around him better – is unfortunately wasted here.)
As opposed to her usual red-carpet glamorous side, Lively receives a full makeunder to great effect: She doesn’t overdo it with the English accent and her character isn’t as hypersexualized as, say, Jennifer Lawrence in “Red Sparrow.”
From makeup to wardrobe, Stephanie looks and feels like she’s beenthrough the wringer, plus utilizes an endless array of hairstyles and colors. There are quite a few frustratingly unanswered questions in this movie, none more than the origins of our heroine’s unbelievable wig collection.
Akin to “Atomic Blonde” minus the style, the movie shies away from doing anything too nuanced or fancy, though Morano puts together a neat one-take car chase that stands out among the various set pieces. Aside from a few cool moments, “The Rhythm Section” is perfectly content marching to the beat of the same old drum.