Producers: Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli   Director: Reed Morano   Screenplay: Mark Burnell   Cast: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Max Casella, Richard Brake, Geoff Bell, Daniel Mays, David Duggan, Shane Whisker, Elly Curtis, Nasser Memarzia, Amira Ghazalla and Tawfeek Barhom   Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Grade: C-

It’s admirable for anyone to want to make an espionage-based action film that differs from the usual sleek fare in the genre, featuring some hero who can apparently overcome any obstacle with superhuman aplomb.  It’s especially so when one of the major producing entities is the one that has overseen the James Bond franchise that set the template so many others have, to one extent or another, tried to emulate.  And the fact that the protagonist is female makes it all the more remarkable.

A pity that the end result is so disappointing.  “The Rhythm Section”—a poor title that, though explained at one point, remains pretty opaque—turns out to be a low-rent Le Carré rip-off that’s the very antithesis of a crowd-pleaser.  Not that it’s trying to make anybody feel good; it’s far too dark and depressing for that.

One can’t blame the movie’s problems on a lack of fidelity to its source material.  The script is by Mark Burnell, the author of the novel (one of  series) on which it’s based.  (The title is his, too.)  Presumably the plot weaknesses are present in the book, too, but they’re probably more obvious on the screen than they were on the page.

After a brief prologue in Tangier, where we see Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) preparing to shoot a man (Richard Brake) sitting in a chair, the film flashes back to a time some months earlier , when she was a bedraggled homeless person hooked on drugs and occasionally making money as a prostitute.  Lively certainly throws herself into the part without reservation: you might think that she’d wandered in from a Sadfie brothers movie. 

The reason for her dissipation is quickly made clear.  He entire family died in a plane crash that she had declined to take with them, and she’s overwhelmed with grief and remorse.  But she assumes that the crash was an accident—the official explanation—until approached by Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey), a freelance reporter who’s been investigating it at the instance of  rich businessman Suleman Kaif (Nasser Memarzia) and his wife Alia (Amira Ghazalla).  He tells Stephanie that the plane was brought down by a bomb planted by a terrorist named Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), who—for reasons not explained—the authorities have neglected to arrest. 

Stephanie determines to kill him, but can’t go through with it.  After Proctor is killed, though, she seeks out his source—and finds him absurdly easily, with just the Scottish equivalent on a zip code to go by.  (It helps that his seems to be the only house for miles.)  He’s an ex MI6 agent named Ian Boyd (Jude Law), who after some grumpy reluctance gets her clean, toughens her up through trials like swimming in an ice-cold loch, and trains her in the brutal techniques of killing. 

Boyd then assigns her the identity of a dead assassin called Petra Reuter, and sends her to Marseille to meet a notorious dealer in information, Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), who gets her a lucrative gig to kill sleazy businessman Leon Giler (Max Casella) and then gives her the locations of Lehmans (Brake), who was involved in the downing of the plane, and Reza so that she can take them out.

What would be amusing about all this—if Burnell and director Reed Morano allowed even a whiff of humor to intrude into their grim, ultra-serious treatment, is not only that Stephanie is, until the twisty ending, being used by virtually everyone, but that in actuality she’s not terribly good at the murder business, largely because her conscience keeps getting in the way.  Her failure to shoot Reza when she has the chance early on gives him the opportunity to do more damage; her reluctance to gut Giler puts everything in jeopardy; and when she dithers in shooting Lehmans, it gives him the chance to turn the tables.

To be sure, that allows Morano to stage some visceral action sequences, most notably the fight with Lehmans (which Patrick survives only by dumb luck) along with an ensuing car chase (which, once again, ends in near-disaster), and an attempting bombing of a bus.  All, however, are so skittishly shot by Sean Bobbitt and edited by Joan Sobel that they amount to visual assaults.  There’s also an aural assault in terms of the decision to use several pop tunes to comment on the action at various points—an oddly out-of-place idea that’s simply grating. 

It must be said that through it all, Lively gives her all, which is considerable.  She looks genuinely distressed from beginning to end, even when donning wigs and glitzy clothes as disguises, and handles the role’s physical demands impressively.  Law does the dour, world-weary bit with grim efficiency, and Brown brings smoothness to the unflappable Serra.  The rest of the cast fulfill their responsibilities more than adequately, with Jaffrey and Barhom the standouts; Casella, however, overdoes the sleaze (and frankly the exteriors for that sequence don’t appear to have actually been shot in New York City, where it’s ostensibly set).

Burnell’s book was followed by three other Stephanie Patrick novels, and presumably it’s hoped that “The Rhythm Section” will inaugurate a Jason Bourne-like series.  But despite Lively’s committed performance, the unrelieved grimness and cynicism of this initial installment make it unlikely to spawn a franchise.