Blake Lively takes on terrorists in revenge thriller 'The Rhythm Section'
"The Rhythm Section" -- ★ ★ ★
This globe-trotting thriller features a gut-grabbing car chase sequence every bit as visceral but more complex than Steve McQueen's iconic Charger/Mustang duel on the streets of San Francisco in 1968's classic "Bullitt."
That would be the best, but not the only good reason to see Reed Morano's "The Rhythm Section," despite a lengthy fuse that eventually detonates into extraordinary suspense and keen cinematic construction.
Blake Lively's photogenic face bookends this story.
Near the beginning, she appears haggard and emaciated, with lifeless eyes, bruises, sores, scabs and scratches searing her face.
At the close, she looks radically different with her eyes ablaze with awareness, and her countenance clean, clear and confident.
In between these images, "The Rhythm Section" treats us to a super-assassin origin story mixed with a classic revenge tale and a female empowerment thriller.
James Bond 007 movie executives Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli produced this action film, but you'd never suspect that from its low-key marketing.
Broccoli and Wilson probably didn't want us to expect a female 007 in Lively's Stephanie Patrick, a promising Oxford grad who spirals into drugs and prostitution after her family dies in a jet crash.
Stephanie ducked out of the family trip at the last moment, sentencing herself to three years of self-destructive survivor's guilt.
A muckraking journalist (Raza Jaffrey) finally locates Stephanie and delivers shocking information. A bomb caused the "accidental" jet crash. And he knows who masterminded the attack.
She doesn't believe him, or maybe she's too coked-out to care. But when she discovers the journalist assassinated in his office, she knows.
It's payback time.
Stephanie travels to rural Scotland and finds a former British agent and professional hermit named Iain Boyd (Jude Law), a one-dimensional Yoda for off-the-grid wannabe assassins seeking vengeance.
He trains her to be the baddest of bad-butt assassins. He puts her on the trail of former government agent Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), gone rogue for personal gain.
Oh, remember how Wilson and Broccoli didn't want us to expect Jane Bond?
Lively, in a strong, challenging performance that should elevate her to greater stardom, creates Stephanie as an incredibly human, embarrassingly poor assassin.
She botches a key kill because she can't (EEK!) slit a man's throat. She lets other targets almost kill her first. Once, dumb luck saves her.
No 007 here.
Morano (the youngest member of the American Society of Cinematographers and one of only 14 women out of 345 members) directs the dramatic portions of "The Rhythm Section" more like straight drama than a tightly coiled action thriller.
So between supercharged moments created with handheld cameras (accompanied by bold, Oscar-quality sound mixing and editing), hyper-realistic explosions and immersive, you-are-there experiences, "The Rhythm Section" lapses into leisurely paced exposition.
But then we get the scene in which Stephanie gets trapped by shooters in a small house, and the sound of her racing heart comes on loud, like in a cheesy horror tale.
But wait. We hear her take a deep, deep breath. And her heart beat slows to a calming rhythm. She is ready.
See? There are good reasons to see "The Rhythm Section" other than just a great chase scene.
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Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown
Directed by: Reed Morano
Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual situations, violence. 109 minutes