“It’s a hell of thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s going to have.” — William Munny (Clint Eastwood), Unforgiven
More often than not, the revenge movie taps into a primitive need to witness those who destroy innocent lives get their frontier justice. Though many progenitors within the genre skew towards its exploitative potential, reveling in the literal and figurative execution of the “eye for an eye” philosophy, the genre is often given to exploring the corrosive nature of blind vengeance. Especially recently, with titles from women directors. Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here examined the spiritual toll of such a path of violence, while Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale tackled its irreversible psychological burden. A straight genre exercise that mixes revenge fantasy with a globetrotting assassin adventure, The Rhythm Section may not dig as deep, but director Reed Morano handles an impressive balance between the genre’s prerequisite set pieces—full of intense hand-to-hand combat and pulse-pounding action—and an honest examination of how hard it truly is to take a life no matter how much we believe that life deserves to be taken.
Screenwriter Mark Burnell, who adapted his novel with the same name, wisely skips typical first act, overindulgent exposition, spending time in the protagonist’s happy home before it’s violently taken away. When we meet Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively), the trauma has already occurred. Years ago, her entire family died in a plane crash, and, unable to cope with the insurmountable sorrow, Stephanie turned to a dead-eyed existence of addiction and sex work. Lively, always somber, captures the numbing nature of grief.
One day, a freelance journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) poses as one of Stephanie’s johns to drop a bombshell on her: The plane crash wasn’t an accident. It was a terrorist attack by a radical named Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), a reality the American government covered up because of Reza’s connections to Middle Eastern government figures. Stephanie immediately makes it her mission in life to kill Reza and everyone who helped him facilitate the bombing.
Her first move is to track down an ex-MI-6 operative named Boyd (Jude Law) and convince him to train her as a coldblooded assassin. Boyd can’t deny Stephanie’s determination, so he decides to put her through an elite murderer’s boot camp, but he’s also insightful enough to lecture Stephanie on the moral hardship of killing a person, and the lifelong guilt that follows it.
As Team America educated us, if we want the main character to go from a beginner to a pro, all we need is a montage. After all, it took only a split screen music video set to “Back in Black” for Bruce Willis’s liberal pussy doctor to turn into a ruthless killing machine in the Death Wish remake. But once Stephanie’s training montage ends, she discovers that target practice on inanimate objects is different than shooting or stabbing a person. She can be clumsy, sometimes in the heat of the moment letting her adrenaline get the best of her. As Stephanie goes for the kill, Morano sticks to close-up shots of her targets from her point-of-view, forcing the audience to look into their eyes before that inner light is snuffed out.
That doesn’t mean the set pieces aren’t gripping or bombastic in their own right. Morano’s often visually imaginative direction and Sean Bobbitt’s kinetic cinematography result in a couple of spectacular sequences, chief among them a car chase that combines the precision of that long single take from the first half of Children of Men with one of many stunt-heavy chase scenes in Paul Greengrass’s Bourne movies. Morano also experiments with the expected set-up and payoff of assassination scenes. One sequence takes the legendary sex/post-coital intercutting in Don’t Look Now and applies it to one of Stephanie’s missions, emphasizing the moral heft of her action before and during execution.
Which all means: The Rhythm Section certainly doesn’t rewrite the structure of the revenge movie. The usual plot twists can still be seen coming a mile away. None of which keeps it from being a smart and insightful genre exercise in an already promising director’s young career.
Director: Reed Morano
Writer: Mark Burnell
Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Richard Brake, Daniel Mays, Tawfeek Barhom
Release Date: January 31, 2020