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Review: Blake Lively and gritty ‘The Rhythm Section’ is plagued by a shaky adaptation

Sterling K. Brown and Blake Lively in the movie ‘The Rhythm Section’
Sterling K. Brown and Blake Lively in the movie “The Rhythm Section.”
(Jose Haro / Paramount Pictures)

Award-winning director and cinematographer Reed Morano has tackled dystopian futures in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the end of the world in “I Think We’re Alone Now” and devastating grief in “Meadowland.” Her third feature film, “The Rhythm Section,” combines these themes, though it has a bit more kick than her prior indies. Starring Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick, “The Rhythm Section” is adapted by Mark Burnell from his series of thriller novels. If Jason Bourne were a grieving trauma survivor, you’d end up with Stephanie, and the film serves as her origin story.

Lively has severely de-glammed herself in this edgy role, and when we first meet Stephanie, she’s a heroin-smoking London sex worker with a shaggy bowl cut. When a reporter (Raza Jaffrey) contracts her services to talk about the plane crash that killed her family, Stephanie’s rock bottom existence is thrown into chaos. Learning that a bomb on board caused the crash, she seeks revenge. She just has to kick the smack first.

There’s something rather enjoyable about watching Stephanie try to turn herself into “La Femme Nikita,” with the help (or harm) of a former MI6 agent, B (Jude Law), who has valuable intel about the terrorist organization she’s after. B whips her into shape, and the first half of “The Rhythm Section” is essentially an exercise in body horror as Lively subjects her battered self to opiate detox, freezing lake water, clumsy fisticuffs and lots and lots of jogging.

When B sends Stephanie into the field on a few wild goose chases, posing as a dead assassin named Petra, wow, is she ever inept, and it’s honestly refreshing. Enough with the “Black Widow” super spies. For something really original, let’s see a green wannabe hit woman try to navigate a small car through Tangier, Morocco, while in a full panic. The willingness to let Stephanie be human and react as such brings a sense of reality and authenticity back to the action-spy genre, which has become too slick.

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Morano focuses intensely on Stephanie’s subjective experience, using many hazy and handheld extreme close-ups on her face in the fight and action scenes, placing us inside Stephanie’s head. It’s a fascinating exercise in shooting action and combat.

Though Burnell’s adaptation is a bit rickety, Morano brings a gritty neorealist style with the help of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and Lively dirties herself up for cred. We all know why Stephanie does what she does, but what about everyone else? Why does B recruit her, and what is his goal? Why does Keith, the reporter, need her? Why does she enter into a dalliance with intended mark/reluctant ally Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown)? The storytelling is a bit too economical, and the vague aphorisms Lively mutters in a serviceable British accent don’t clarify anything. “The Rhythm Section” launches Morano into a new world of action/thriller filmmaking, and her unique style is a welcome refresh for the genre. But while it certainly has a spirit, it often loses the beat.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘The Rhythm Section'
Rated: R, for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 31 in general release

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