Missing the action: The Rhythm Section falls flat and out of sync

Blake Lively stars in The Rhythm Section, a not-so-action-packed thriller with a weak message. Image courtesy Paramount Pictures Blake Lively stars in The Rhythm Section, a not-so-action-packed thriller with a weak message. Image courtesy Paramount Pictures

The Rhythm Section’s title refers to the parts of the body an assassin must keep steady in order to be most effective: heartbeat and breathing. Everything else is tactical and depends on the specifics of the situation, but those are what truly matter. And in this film, those are the only parts that are any good.

It would be one thing if these moments, full of effective sound design, clever editing, and solid acting, reflected the adversity Stephanie (Blake Lively) overcame to become a highly effective assassin, succeeding where other intelligence agencies failed. Traumatized by the murder of her family by an international terrorist, she’s hit rock bottom and has nothing left to lose. If only Stephanie could then exact justice, go where others won’t, see what others can’t, suppress her hatred, and channel her rage—now that would be a movie. Too bad it’s not this movie.

The Rhythm Section

R, 109 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The first problem is, she never gets very good at this assassin stuff. In one hit, she loses a fight then waits as the guy dies of a preexisting condition. In another, she hesitates and quits, leaving her trainer/handler (Jude Law) to execute plan B, which is way messier and more intolerable than if she’d done things the stealthy way. The climax is yet another failure upwards, and while I won’t spoil it, an unintroduced character does something unmotivated for Stephanie’s sake, and it’s treated like a victory. What’s all this focus for if she just waits for someone else to figure it out? For someone who says she’ll do whatever it takes, she has a knack for doing less than the bare minimum.

If this were a tale of a person out of her depth, realizing that doing what’s right is politically and morally murkier than it should be, by all means, leave the dirty work to the jaded vets. That’d be a spy tale with a dramatic core worth exploring. What we get instead is a paint-by-numbers thriller.

There’s one known bad guy and another whose identity is still a mystery. Here’s a pro tip from Roger Ebert: Find the A-list actor whose part seems too small. Boom, that’s the secret bad guy. The reveal is less of a surprise than the assumption that you didn’t know who the villain was.

What remains in The Rhythm Section is weak, noncommittal geopolitical commentary on defeating terror. Maybe that would work, if it had anything interesting to say about the state of the world. Its insights end at noting that some Middle Eastern people are terrorists and some Middle Eastern people are not terrorists. They’re either totally good or totally evil. We know more about the humanity of white people who show up for one scene and get killed than the people around whom the plot revolves.

Director Reed Morano has done her best work in television, and if this story had any legs to begin with, The Rhythm Section might have been best developed for the small screen. It’s certainly episodic enough. Instead, it’s an international spy thriller with no intrigue, and the only parts that show any craft are the occasional breathing sequences. So if you hate action, don’t know anything about the world, and love watching bad assassins breathe, your new favorite movie has finally arrived.

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

See it again

Green Book

PG-13, 130 minutes

Feb. 9, The Paramount Theater

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