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Blake Lively stars in The Rhythm Section.

Jose Haro/Paramount Pictures

  • The Rhythm Section
  • Directed by Reed Morano
  • Written by Mark Burnell
  • Starring Blake Lively, Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown
  • Classification PG
  • 109 minutes.

rating

In a Saturday Night Live parody of Scandal from 2014, Lena Dunham played an intern at Olivia Pope’s office. As Pope rattled off instructions to her team – you hack into the CIA; you bug the NSA; you fly to Mexico and infiltrate a ball – Dunham stood agape. “You just talked so fast, and I have literally a thousand questions,” she squeaked. “Where in Mexico, what time is my flight and do I buy my own ticket?”

I kept thinking about that skit while watching The Rhythm Section, the new thriller starring Blake Lively as a fledgling assassin named Stephanie Patrick. Because the film is produced by Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, the duo behind the James Bond franchise (this is only their third non-Bond production), I was expecting sleek, feline assurance, à la Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Angelina Jolie in Salt or Jodie Comer in Killing Eve.

Opening in theatres this weekend: Feminist fable Gretel & Hansel, and amateur assassin thriller The Rhythm Section

But no. In the hands of Reed Morano, the cinematographer-turned-director who made her mark helming the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Patrick is the anti-Bond. She has to do all the things an action star does – hand-to-hand combat, shootings, narrow escapes, stabbings – only she does them the way the average person would. The fight scenes are messy and awkward, and she survives only through dumb luck. The car chase – a bravura sequence that looks like one shot, with the camera belted in the passenger seat – is scream-y and chaotic. And when she pulls a shard of glass from her hand, it looks like it really, really hurts.

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(In fact, Lively was injured during the shoot, and the production shut down for five months while she healed. The film’s release was further delayed while she was on maternity leave with her third child. The nurturing of a female director? Perhaps.)

Patrick’s amateurism actually makes the standard tangled-plot proceedings more interesting: The stakes feel higher and the peril scarier. Good thing, too, because the script – written by Mark Burnell and based on his novel – is full of whoppers.

Three years before the action begins, Patrick’s family died in an airplane crash. Survivor’s guilt turned her from a brilliant Oxford student into a drug-using prostitute. That’s where we meet her, when a reporter (Raza Jaffrey) tracks her down to tell her that the accident was really a terrorist attack and the bomber is loose in London. “You’re another victim,” he says, “you’re just not dead yet.”

Jude Law plays B, a former MI6 operative who trains Lively's Stephanie Patrick.

Bernard Walsh/Paramount Pictures

Instead of going to the cops or the newspapers with this intel, however, Patrick heads for the wilds of Scotland, where she (rather easily) finds B (Jude Law), the journalist’s main source, an ex-MI6 operative. And instead of turfing Patrick, B puts her through Assassin Boot Camp, a series of endurance tests that could easily be mistaken for the latest high-end L.A. fitness craze and is rescued from risible only by Lively’s commitment.

Once B declares Patrick ready for action, we’re off to Spain, Tangiers, Marseilles and New York, so she can take revenge on the terrorists and wear a lot of wigs. Sometimes she manages to kill her prey, but often she can’t bring herself to. There’s a love scene, a lingerie scene, a syringe full of deadly venom, a good guy who turns out to be a bad guy and a couple of exploding vehicles.

It is fun, though, to spot the differences a female director brings to the genre. At the beginning of the story, Lively is decidedly unglamorous, all choppy hair and bruises. The costuming is more tough-chick than titillating. Far from being a video-game fantasy heroine, Patrick frequently freezes and forgets her training. She’s rattled by the consequences of her actions, and she cries and cringes, shivers and screws up like a human. Morano shoots the action lucidly but deliberately haphazardly to convey all that. And the sex and nudity aren’t exploitative.

What Morano was unable to improve is that terrible title and the terrible metaphor it refers to, one B uses to teach Patrick how to focus. “Your heart is the drum, your breathing the bass,” he says during their training. “Get the rhythm section sorted, and you’re sorted.” It felt like this was going to be a mantra that recurred visually or aurally through the film. I suppose I should be grateful it didn’t. But why make it weirdly prominent and then not use it?

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It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the film ends with Patrick and B having one final encounter on the streets of London. After all, Burnell wrote four Stephanie Patrick novels, and this is such an origin story that a sequel only seems natural.

“I hope I never see you again,” B growls.

“Do you?” Patrick replies.

The first mission certainly has its flaws, but I’d give her another chance. Even Olivia Pope had to start somewhere.

The Rhythm Section opens on Jan. 31.

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