We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

Blake Lively is at her best when she has a secret. In recent films The Age of Adaline and A Simple Favor, she has succeeded as characters who hide dangerous pasts behind glamorous facades. It’s the type of role that plays to her strengths, both her physical beauty and a certain inscrutability. In The Rhythm Section, an incoherent revenge thriller, Lively changes course, scrapping glamour for grit and trading guarded emotions for high-pitched action. It might have worked, too, if the film had any idea what it was doing.

At first glance, her role in The Rhythm Section actually seems perfect for her particular talents. She plays Stephanie, a British woman who, after losing her entire family in a terrorist attack, seeks violent revenge. With no discernible skills, she turns to a gruff ex-MI6 agent (Jude Law), who is working privately to take down the same funder of terrorism she is after. At his training facility deep in the Scottish moors, he teaches Stephanie to kill. He gives her a new identity. She cuts her hair and dyes it brown. She enters a dangerous world with a very big secret.

It’s a transformation that, in a different film, would be played for entertainment—it’s a gritty makeover, but a makeover nonetheless—but director Reed Morano is resistant to fun. As Stephanie embraces her new identity as an assassin, working her way up from the small-time thug to the big boss, the film nibbles at the edges of genre conventions, while withholding the pleasures they typically deliver. There’s a jaw-dropping chase scene through the alleys of Tangier, Morocco, filmed entirely from inside Stephanie’s shaking car. There are fight scenes, in which her newfound skills are tested against those with more experience, that unfold with a rare and ugly intimacy. These are predictable moments in a revenge thriller, but Morano films them with just enough originality to feel fresh.

These flourishes, however, are not enough to compensate for the film’s core flaws. The Rhythm Section is built on a twisty plot, features strong performances, and is filmed with verve, but its meaning is always just out of reach. It’s not entertaining enough for pure genre, and it lacks anything new or interesting to say about vengeance. For a film that revolves around terrorism, there is shockingly little politics. Still, grand statements of purpose are unnecessary when we’ve got a character we like on a well defined journey. The script, adapted by Mark Burnell from his own novel, never looks beyond Stephanie’s grief to see her as more than, as she’s described in the film, a “woman with nothing to lose.” A third-rate cliche is a poor substitute for characterization.

Even Lively, with her gift for mystery, isn’t enough to enliven this dead screenplay. There is a gleeful moment halfway through when Lively poses as a sex worker and infiltrates the Central Park penthouse of a noted scumbag with terrorist connections. For a glorious moment, she slips easily back into the mode of the opaque seductress, and we wait in giddy anticipation for her to dole out punishment for the wicked. But it’s just a tease. Moments later, the film reverts back to its glum machinations, and we are reminded that the spilling of blood is not necessarily a sign of life. 

The Rhythm Section opens Friday in theaters everywhere.

Want a heads up about artsy goings-on?

To Do This Week is your twice-weekly email roundup of arts and cultural events. It’s the perfect way to know what’s going on, and subscribing is a great way to support us