Did The Rhythm Section deserve to set the grotesque record of having the worst opening weekend at the box office for any film to open in more than 3000 theaters? If we mean "deserve" in the sense of it being the worst film to open in more than 3000 theaters, or the one with the worst advertising campaign, then of course not - it's not even the worst film with the worst ad campaign of a film that opened during January, 2020.* But let me put it this way: if I am doing my job properly, you will not reach the end of this review with any desire to spend any amount of money to watch this film yourself.

The Rhythm Section is the sixth film made by Eon Productions outside of the James Bond franchise, the fifth since Eon's co-founder Albert R. Broccoli passed away, leaving control of the company to his daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson Michael G. Wilson. It's also the first one of those six films that's openly derivative of the Bond pictures: while it's surely reductive to assume that this adaptation of the first book (of four) in Mark Burnell's Stephanie Patrick series was put into production specifically as a way for Eon to get a new "Lady Bond' franchise going, it would just as surely be deeply naΓ―ve to doubt that the idea never once crossed Broccoli and Wilson's minds.

So yes, the focus here is one Stephanie Patrick, played by Blake Lively, whose career absolutely did not need this movie at this moment. Stephanie is last living member of her family, the one person who didn't make it onto a doomed flight a few years back: her parents, brother, and sister all died in a plane explosion that turns out to have been a targeted attack on a different passenger.Β  These days, Stephanie's plunge into the darkest depths of depression has left her a drug-addicted prostitute, and this is how she's found by independent journalist Keith Proctor (Raza Jeffrey). Without a clear goal of his own, Proctor tells her all of the above, including the identity of the man responsible for the bomb that killed her family, who just so happens to be studying at university right there in London. Stephanie goes to confront and kill him, but loses her nerve; she comes close enough, however, for the bomb-maker, Reza (Tawfeek Barhom) to go into lockdown mode, which among other things means killing Proctor. It does not mean destroying Proctor's records, however, which is how Stephanie is able to trace the journalist's source, an ex-MI6 agent code-named B, for Boyd (Jude Law). She finds B in Scotland, and convinces him to train her as a super-spy assassin, so that she can track down Reza, as well as the man who hired him, the mysterious U-17, and kill them both. B is a real asshole about this.

The shorter version of all that: Jude Law plays an ex-spy who trains Blake Lively to become a world-class assassin who wears the very worst wigs. And here is where we start to get into the significant, even severe problems with The Rhythm Section. Basically, it is ridiculous. And there's of course much that can be done in taking ridiculous things and treating them seriously, and action cinema in particular is a good place to do this. The problem lies in forgetting that the audience knows it's ridiculous. I mean, we see Lively in those wigs. We're not going to pretend that this can actually turn into a sober-minded study of trauma curdling into the desire for revenge at all costs; it can at most do that in a very reductive, pop-psychology way. And reductive pop psychology is all that The Rhythm Section ever has, which is perfectly fine. Unfortunately, Burnell (writing the screenplay), director Reed Morano, and Lively all seem to have it in mind that this might turn into a very rich character study as long as they make sure not to cheapen it in anyway. By, for example, making it even a little bit fun to watch.

That's the problem, right there. The Rhythm Section is at heart a "gorgeous woman in silly wigs murdering people in beautiful locations around the globe" thriller, but it doesn't have an ounce of humor in it. It is, indeed, anti-humorous. In the film's trailer, there's a beat where Stephanie is asked how she expects to gain closure about losing her loved ones, and Lively responds, after the mildest of pauses, "violently", with a little vocal shrug; I wouldn't call it a funny joke, exactly, but it has a certain acerbic wit that feels at least worthy of a smirk. In context in the movie, the same beat is so grim and weighted with meaning that it's almost more miserable than everything around it. And that is quite miserable. This is a heavy movie, moving slowly and using lots of very claustrophobic compositions and muted lighting to make everything feel thick and gloomy, while Lively and Law are working hard to make their characters as brittle and unsmiling as possible. If the film could actually translate this into talking about Stephanie's pain, maybe we'd have something, but everything about the story, the character, and the performance are so one-note that it all feels frivolous. Stephanie's dead family are never more than pictures and flashbacks without personality; she is, herself, such a flat representation of disaffection that I never once felt like the film answered the crucial question of "but why do I care?".

It's all soggy and sullen and deeply unenjoyable - it doesn't even have any good fight sequences, which is just about the only thing it feels like it has promised us - that it almost feels like overkill to bring up this one last thing: but damn, is it badly cut together. Not just in the picture: the soundtrack is a choppy mess, especially when it comes time to plug in its very random assortment of song cues, chosen with no eye towards a consistent mood or identity, all of them slamming off artlessly. But the picture is pretty bad too, making a hash of the film's odd but hardly daunting chronological structure, and leaving several conversations feeling like they were Frankensteined together from dialogue that was meant to flow very differently. It's already a suffocating, airless movie; for it to have such clumsy, jerky flow on top of it is adding insult to injury in the most irritating way.




*My apologies to Dolittle: while I intend to stop throwing shade your way eventually, that time is probably not coming very soon.