January 31, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Reed Morano
Culture Representation: This globe-trotting action film, which is about a woman who becomes an undercover assassin to avenge the deaths of her family, consists of predominantly white (with some African American and Asian) characters representing the middle and upper classes of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Culture Clash: The protagonist, an American who’s been living in the United Kingdom for several years, wants revenge against an international terrorist group that sets bombs to kill innocent people.
Culture Audience: “The Rhythm Section” will appeal mostly to fans of lead actress Blake Lively, but her myriad of disguises in the film can’t quite cover up the movie’s far-fetched plot.
If you were to believe Hollywood’s version of what female assassins are like in action dramas, then you’d think that they’re all extremely good-looking, emotionally damaged women (with a past or present drug problem) who don’t have families and have to be a prostitute or “kept woman” to a rich and powerful man at least once, in order to get information or to get revenge. When an assassin/spy movie’s main character is a woman who’s new to the game, she’s almost always trained by a man.
She usually has sexual tension or an affair with her trainer or another man who has some kind of supervisor power over her. And there’s always an excuse to present her in a scantily clad outfit (such as lingerie) or possibly nude in the movie. It should come as no surprise that these movies about female assassins/spies who prostitute themselves are almost always written by men. Think about how many times James Bond, Jason Bourne or “Mission: Impossible’s” Ethan Hunt have had to show their naked private parts or play a male hooker in their movies. Exactly. Zero.
When you take all of these sexist movie stereotypes about female assassins/spies into consideration, “The Rhythm Section” really is just another predictable rehash of the same old formula that seemed fresh with 1990’s “La Femme Nikita,” but has since been recycled so many times that movie audiences have rightfully become bored with it. Recent movie flops such as “Anna,” “Red Sparrow” and “Atomic Blonde” (with “The Rhythm Section” inevitably joining the list) are an indication that audiences are rejecting this concept that female assassins—no matter how badass they are in their gun-toting, disguise-changing ways—are still reduced to being sexpots who are following orders from men. With other more empowered action role models on screen, such as female superheroes, who needs these outdated portrayals of women who go undercover?
The main difference between “The Rhythm Section” and almost every female assassin/spy movie of this type is that “The Rhythm Section” is directed by a woman—Reed Morano, whose directing work on the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” earned her an Emmy Award. “The Rhythm Section” (which is a terrible title for an action movie) is based on the novel by Mark Burnell, who wrote the movie’s screenplay. It’s called “The Rhythm Section” because more than one character utters in the film: “Think of your heart as the drums and your breathing as the bass,” as a way to focus when they’re in a dangerous situation. Such pretentious tripe.
Near the beginning of the film, it becomes obvious that Stephanie Patrick (played by Lively) already checks three of the cliché boxes about female assassins in movies. Is she without a family? Check. Her immediate family (her parents and her younger sister and brother) have died in a plane crash three years before the story takes place.
Is she emotionally damaged with a drug problem? Check. She’s so traumatized over the loss of her family that she’s become a down-and-out drug addict. Is she a prostitute too? Check. She goes by the alias “Lisa” when she’s working as a hooker. Before the tragedy, Stephanie was an American who was living in England as a university student. Clearly, her student visa has now expired, just like this movie’s weak concept.
Somehow, a freelance journalist named Keith Proctor (played by Raza Jeffrey) tracks down Stephanie and poses as a client so that he can get into her apartment. He tells her that he doesn’t want sex but wants to tell her that the plane crash that killed her family wasn’t an accident. It was really caused by a bomb that was planted by a terrorist named Muhammad Reza (played Tawfeek Barhom), in yet another movie stereotype that portrays an Arab as a crazy terrorist.
Okay, stop right there. At some point, you have to wonder how stupid the filmmakers think viewers are, because there’s no way that a plane that has been exploded by a bomb, killing everyone (hundreds of people) on board, could be mistaken as an “accident” by government agencies investigating such a major tragedy. But in the world of “The Rhythm Section,” so many things are silly and illogical that there’s no point in trying to make sense of this sloppy mess of a story.
And in the world of “The Rhythm Section,” if you’re a journalist investigating this plane that was “secretly” bombed, you need to track down a drug-addicted prostitute whose immediately family died on the plane and convince her that she needs to help you find this mysterious terrorist, even though she’s so strung out that she can barely function. No joke. That’s what happens in the movie.
Proctor, who already knows Stephanie’s real name, then proceeds to invite her to his place and leave all of his keys with her, even though he knows she’s a drug addict who’ll be tempted to steal from him to get money for drugs. When she points that out to him, he tells her, “I can always change the locks.” It’s no surprise that things don’t turn out very well for Proctor. Before he’s out of the picture, Stephanie confesses to him that she feels guilty because she was supposed to be on the plane with her family, but she changed her mind at the last minute.
Stephanie goes away to a remote countryside in Scotland. And almost immediately, she’s tracked down by another man, who ambushes her. Despite being a messed-up junkie with no background in espionage, law enforcement, the military or intelligence gathering, Stephanie seems to have some kind of invisible radar where people think that she’s the perfect candidate to hunt down an international terrorist. The new man who wants Stephanie to be his terrorist hunter just goes by the name “B” (played by Jude Law), and his mission is to train Stephanie to become an assassin to find not only Reza, but also the head of the international terrorist group that sent Reza to plant the plane’s bomb. The group’s name is U-17, which sounds more like a submarine than a terrorist faction.
And off Stephanie and B go in the remote countryside, where he whips her into shape, as she huffs and puffs on morning jogs she doesn’t want to take. So, no drug rehab then? After some target practice, B’s way of training Stephanie to use a gun is to demand that she shoot him while he’s wearing a bulletproof vest. Viewers will also have to sit through several scenes where B seems to take pleasure in randomly starting physical fights with Stephanie, as a way to prepare her for her new life as a terrorist hunter.
Oh and by the way, as B tells her, Stephanie has to pose as a German spy named Petra, because Petra has disappeared and he needs someone to assume Petra’s identity. And why exactly does Stephanie agree to all of this and go away with this mystery person, who won’t even tell her his full name and says he used to be in MI6 but shows no proof? Are she and this movie’s screenplay that dumb? Yes.
It’s not long before another guy comes into the mix: Marc Serra (played by Sterling K. Brown), an American philanthropist who says he used to be in the CIA and he’s willing to help “Petra” track down the brains behind U-17, so he becomes a trusted advisor. He immediately notices that “Petra” doesn’t have a German accent, and she doesn’t really answer his question when he asks her why she doesn’t have a German accent. (Lively’s accent in the movie is kind of distracting, because it sounds like American trying too hard to sound British. She should’ve just stuck with her real American accent.) Stephanie and Marc are sexually attracted to each other, so of course that means ethics will be compromised and judgment will be clouded.
And even when she assumes a new identity, the movie isn’t done with showing Stephanie/”Petra” being a hooker yet. While disguising herself as a red-haired, high-priced escort, she visits a rich, arrogant businessman named Michael “Leo” Giler (played by Max Casella) in his New York City luxury apartment. B has told her to kill the guy. However, things might or might not go as planned. But that’s not before Stephanie strips down into dominatrix-type lingerie where she slinks and slithers around on Giler to lure him into her seduction trap.
As car chases, gun fights and explosions in several cities around the world act as filler to this very flimsy story, viewers might ask, “Where exactly is this movie going?” For long stretches of the movie, the answer to that question is “nowhere.” And then there’s the laughably bad ending that leaves you wondering how the actors could’ve kept a straight face while filming it. “The Rhythm Section” is an ironic title for this movie, which ultimately hits all the wrong beats and is off-balance from the start.
Paramount Pictures released “The Rhythm Section” in U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.