The Rhythm Section has all the ambitions of an airplane novel, that it can be picked up and put down without any disruption to your day. It is certainly an expenditure of time and there are far worse, more taxing ways to occupy traveling time. As such, it is destined for the fate of the airplane movie: a ponderous action-er with a fairly capable cast and a director overreaching but underachieving her desired style. Reed Morano does have something as a director. She has done some fine journeyman-like work already. There was 2018’s Peter Dinklage and Elle Fanning vehicle I Think We’re Alone Now, where she expressed her cinematic eye as a purely visual and cinematographic one, and follows suit here, creating visuals and some nice one-take shots that overburden a very simple formula.
Blake Lively has been ready for a leading star turn for a while. She really does show up and puts in genuine effort. Despite the cadence of her put-on British accent, she remains likable here. The story is that her family was killed, leading her down a treacherous path that ended in drug addiction and prostitution before she comes by some new information that enables her to enact revenge. It becomes prototypical spy stuff from there, readily reminiscent of Red Sparrow (2018), without the hopelessly nasty attitude problem. Lively gives one of her more… lively performances. Her fight choreography is tight and nicely considered and she gets at least three very clean action sequences to add to her credits. More subdued is Sterling K. Brown, who, despite not being given a large enough space to operate, creates an interesting emotional context in his character. We are ready to see him do so much more than he gets to do in The Rhythm Section.
The base problems of The Rhythm Section largely come in its pacing. It’s scattered and jolting. Sometimes, it’s too slow, not finding any natural rhythm of its own. With a name like that, we might expect some percussive heartbeat to underlie its spy thriller action, but it never finds the right harmony for any of its parts. Morano has the most fun with a one-take fight scene and a one-take car sequence. When she’s at play in these moments, there is something to buy into, some larger purpose for the whole of the experience. At its worst, the film vacillates between being too fast and too slow. It is never right on beat with the suggested tone. There are enough moments to buy into to believe in the director’s potential. She might someday feel right at home helming a mid-budget action film, but it isn’t this one.
Adapted from the first novel of a trilogy, The Rhythm Section does feel like a third of a story. It is just getting started when it ends. And it takes all too long for it to get its feet off the ground. When Morano cues in on populist needle drops and stylistic overabundance, she tends to get in her own way. There is something in her style and a real need to express action through cinematography. This just isn’t the project where she is going to meet those goals. It’s a film most people will not see and then feel perfectly fine watching as a free in-flight movie. Still, a trying, better effort than either the adaptations of Red Sparrow or the most recent Dragon Tattoo film. After all, there is a hierarchy of altitude for these in-flight movies.