It’s a wonder that Stephanie Patrick makes it to the end of “The Rhythm Section” alive. Normal people tend not to survive the kind of sophisticated revenge mission that snaps Stephanie out of her depression and into action-hero mode in Reed Morano’s dark, broody and unexpectedly human payback thriller, which stars Blake Lively as a more-motivated-than-coordinated Post Traumatic Suffering Dispenser.
Lest you fear any mention of her survival constitutes a spoiler, consider this: The movie was adapted from the first of four pulpy Stephanie Patrick novels written by Mark Burnell, so of course she doesn’t die. But she comes awfully close on several occasions, and her near-incompetence in the face of danger makes her relatable in ways very few cinematic assassins have ever been. Paramount is opening the movie in January, the month where Liam Neeson is typically the one to do this kind of dirty work. Lively is hardly the actor’s obvious substitute, though the character she plays — a rock-bottom junkie prostitute — absolutely convinces she has nothing to lose.
Actually, since Burnell’s novel was optioned by Eon, the production company behind the James Bond franchise, some have wondered whether Stephanie Patrick’s supposed to be some kind of gender-flipped 007. (No, says Bond custodian Barbara Broccoli.) From the very first scene, audiences should realize that they’re watching a very different type of character. In many ways, she’s even less like “Atomic Blonde,” in which Charlize Theron’s meticulously choreographed, unerringly lethal fighting style is fun to watch but pure fantasy. Stephanie, by contrast, panics under pressure. She’s a bad shot, and an even worse driver. In hand-to-hand combat, she gets thrown around, battered and very nearly killed. Multiple times.
The movie begins in Tangiers, where Stephanie has gone to eliminate one of the men responsible for the death of her family. (They died in an airplane bombing, and given the spectacle that might have provided, it’s a wonder the movie doesn’t start there. But then, Burnell adapted the novel himself, so he must have had his reasons.) So, in the amuse bouche opener, Stephanie creeps into his home and points her gun at the back of his head. But she can’t bring herself to pull the trigger. Could you?
“The Rhythm Section” features lots of terse, no-nonsense dialogue but some pretty corny voiceover — like the howler Lively’s obliged to recite to explain the film’s title. Standing there in silhouette, her weapon extended, Stephanie’s all jitters. But that’s a much more interesting way to approach her first hit anyway. The only person obliged to be a consummate professional here is Morano, a former DP who helmed the first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” effectively setting the tone for the hit Hulu series. This is her third feature, following tragedy-porn “Meadowland” and post-apocalyptic two-hander “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and the assignment puts fresh demands on its director. Pulling it off means Morano’s obliged to think differently not only about action, but also about how she works with actors.
This isn’t an easy role, but Lively aces it. Flashing back more than half a year earlier, the film finds Stephanie looking a lot worse for wear, with scars on her wrists and tears in her eyes. To erase the pain of the plane crash that claimed her parents’ lives, she turns tricks for smack in a squalid London flat. She’s scraping along rock bottom when an investigative reporter named Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) shows up with inside information on the accident — which wasn’t an accident but an attack, he insists.
According to Proctor, the authorities know who built the explosive device but have left him to walk the streets of London a free man. “Why did you come for me?” Stephanie asks. Without missing a beat, Proctor replies, “Because you’re another victim. You’re just not dead yet.” But a couple scenes later, Proctor’s dead, found with his throat slit in his own apartment. His flat has been art-directed to look like a serial killer’s inner sanctum, and snooping around, Stephanie manages to glean enough from his files to track down his most important source, a nameless ex-CIA operative (Jude Law) with demons of his own.
His damage is nothing compared with hers, however. Stephanie’s still addicted to drugs at this point, and Lively shows us what that looks like, twitching on top of all the trauma her character is already carrying. The psychology of how this once-promising college grad would transform herself first into such a trainwreck — all bruises and track marks, spiky hair and smoky eyes — and from there into an avenging badass is shaky, but Lively’s commitment sells it. Stephanie assumes the identity of a ruthless hitwoman, Petra Reuter (an excuse for wig changes and an attitude makeover), and reaches out to an information trafficker named Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown) to identify the target we saw her about to eliminate in the opening scene.
On paper, the rest of the film seems fairly routine: a series of setpieces against a revolving backdrop of glamorous international locations. We’ve seen it in movies like “Atomic Blonde,” “Red Sparrow” and “La Femme Nikita.” Those women are all sexy, self-confident killing machines. But what sets “The Rhythm Section” apart is the simple matter of identification. She’s not a natural. She freezes up, and can’t do what she was trained for. Instead of fighting, she flails wildly, hoping one of her kicks connects with her adversary’s crotch. When she gets hit, it looks like it hurts. And when her gun falls into the bad guy’s hands, she may as well be dead meat.
In the end, it’s luck, not skill that keeps her alive. That’s how most of us would be in her situation. Moments later, in an impressively staged, single-take car chase, Stephanie/Petra nearly gets pushed off a cliff. And so it continues through the final showdown. It’s probably for the best that most action movies don’t unfold like this, where careful planning devolves to desperate innovation in the heat of the moment. But this is what’s meant by “visceral,” and it works in this context — and must be an awful lot harder to pull off, behind the camera. Morano manages, and if Stephanie Patrick ever gets another big-screen mission, it’ll be interesting to see what this experience has taught her.