The Rhythm Section

It feels like beating a dead horse to write about this movie. It didn’t review well, nor did it make any money. There really isn’t a good movie. There are certainly things it does well, but the package does not come together into any kind of entertaining movie.

The Rhythm Section is a spy movie about a woman, Stephanie (Blake Lively) whose family was killed in a plane crash. A few years after that, she is visited by a reporter who tells her that the plane crash was not an accident, but a terrorist attack. This leads to Stephanie wanting to get revenge. First she attempts it on her own, then she seeks help from a former MI6 agent played by Jude Law. He trains her, then uses her to track down the people responsible for the plane bombing.

The movie creates strange juxtapositions. It is mostly a somber, realistic take on a spy or revenge movie. But it is full of needle drops that seem to come from a much more fun, pulpier movie. It highlights the humanity of Stephanie, showing the toll that losing her family, and blaming herself for it. She is slowly killing herself as the movie starts. She has fallen as low as she can. Then the movie gives a perverse ray of hope; it gives her someone to blame. It shows how desperate she is to do something to get revenge, but how hard it is to take a human life, especially when she has to look the person in the eye to do it. Then she has to train.

A lot of movies, fun and good movies, would breeze through this training, or end up with Stephanie as a cold, bad ass killer. To its detriment, The Rhythm Section is better than that. She trains for a few months and knows enough to get herself into more trouble. She is obviously not ready for this work, but she knows enough to fake. Every attempt she makes to do James Bond stuff ends horribly. She fails repeatedly.

The strange juxtapositions come in with the filmmaking. Sometimes things are shot handheld, to try to appear realistic. Sometimes it is super stylized. Most discordant is the ending, with Stephanie walking off like a supreme badass, which is not what the movie showed her becoming. The ending treats everything before this as an origin story, but there her character arc ends with her having no reason to ever engage in this sort of work again.

It is not like you can point to any one thing that sinks this movie. Lively and Law, and Sterling K Brown who plays an information broker, are good. The movie does some interesting things. But as it goes on it becomes more and more clear that the pieces here just don’t fit together.

**

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen did not disappoint. While not as quite as light on its feet or sheerly entertaining as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, The Gentlemen still has a lot to enjoy. There is this unfortunate undertone of something really gross just beneath the surface of this movie. The movie traffics in the idea that if it is offensive to everyone, it is offensive to no one and while I don’t think that holds up to any sort of scrutiny, this is not really a movie that invites any sort of scrutiny.

The movie follows Matthew McConaughey’s Mickey Pearson, a marijuana kingpin who is looking to get out of the game, to retire and spend time with his wife. He is looking to sell out to an American billionaire. Also looking to hone in on his territory is an up and coming Chinese mobster Dry Eye. The story of this potential deal is laid out by Fletcher, a private eye hired to turn up dirt on Mickey, who is telling his story to Mickey’s right hand man Raymond. Of course, there is more going on with every character than is initially apparent. Also, Colin Firth shows up as an Irish boxing coach who gets involved trying to keep some of his young boxers out of trouble.

A troubling part of the movie is how it frames its villains. It plays up the foreignness of Dry Eye, and the American billionaire is also Jewish. Fletcher, who quickly shows himself to not be trustworthy, plays up his homosexuality. The movie is also pretty sympathetic to the plight of impoverished aristocrats who can’t afford the upkeep on their giant manors. But to accept this framing as truly troubling, you have to buy Mickey as someone worth rooting for, and I don’t think the movie really makes you root for Mickey. You like the cool, collected Raymond (Charlie Hunnam) and Mickey’s wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery), who runs an auto-body shop by women for women. But Mickey himself, an American who came to the U.K. and started a drug empire, is not especially sympathetic. The only truly likable person is Coach, a rough and tumble guy who just wants to keep some youngsters out of trouble.

The movie is mostly enjoyable. As it plays out as Fletcher telling Raymond a story, it allows the movie to have some fun with things, with Fletcher spicing up the story when he is missing information or just wants to make something up. It allows for director Guy Ritchie to use some of his fun tricks to spice things up. However, it never quite gets to that incredible tumbling house of cards feeling that Snatch managed. In Ritchie’s earlier gangster movies, you had several different groups of running different schemes that bounce off of each other in interesting ways. The Gentlemen really only has two or three factions and little in the way of surprise. It is still fun, but it feels just a little lacking.

Still, it is fun to be back in Ritchie’s English underworld. Honestly, while I have plenty of complaints, I really enjoyed seeing this. It is not a movie that is going to stick you for long after you leave the theater, but it is a really enjoyable time while you are there.

****

Just Mercy

If you are being incredibly reductive, and I am, Just Mercy is a message movie. The movie is simply steeped in earnest moralizing. It could have become unbearable. Fortunately, it manages to hold back just enough, and is well performed enough, that it gets its message across in a mostly entertaining way.

Michael B. Jordan plays Brian Stevenson, a newly graduated from Harvard lawyer who moves to Alabama to set up the Equal Justice Initiative to help people on death row. Among the cases he takes on is that of Walter “Johnny D” McMillan, played by Jamie Foxx, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on patently and obviously false eye witness testimony. Just Mercy follows Stevenson as he digs into McMillan’s case and as he deals with threats and obstacles from the racist system that put McMillan on Death Row and the racists who are working to keep him there.

The movie is heavy without being completely heavy handed. It shows starkly what black people face in this country and the south especially. Stevenson starts out somewhat insulated thanks to his upbringing in New England. He is soon disabused of any notions of fairness in the system. It starts with a forced strip search when he visits his clients in the prison and escalates to the local police holding him at gunpoint during a traffic stop that is a pretext to rummage through his files.

One thing Just Mercy does especially well is keeping focus on the prisoners. Three are major characters in the movie: McMillan, Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The first two claim to be innocent of the crimes they were convicted of (and were both eventually exonerated). Richardson is guilty, but the movie emphasizes his humanity. He did a terrible thing, but the movie interrogates whether that makes it okay to end his life. Richardson was a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD. He was clearly traumatized, but instead of getting help, he was abandoned by the system.

The movie also does a great job of highlighting the tedium of legal work. Stevenson spends a lot of his time pouring through files, doing research and crafting motions to try to get justice for his clients. These efforts come to naught for the bulk of the movie. His motions are denied, even when the evidence he presents is overwhelming. It is long, crushing, often fruitless work. The movie does not make it exciting, but it does make it look heroic.

The movie cannot help but be incredibly earnest because this is an incredibly important topic. People’s lives are on the line here. It succeeds largely on almost uniformly strong performances. Jamie Foxx is the standout, he is amazing in this movie. Brie Larson does what she can with a role that is important and kind of nothing. Tim Blake Nelson and Rafe Spall are solid as well. The movie manages to give hope in what is a hopeless situation, with the idea that with enough work things can get better. I’ll retract this statement if someone tells me the character is based on a real person, but I could have done without the increasingly sympathetic prison guard. That felt like a ill-fitting note in the context of the rest of the movie.

I’ll end with a little moralizing of my own. The Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment. It is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society. Even if it were ever justified, which it is not, the systems the United States has in place to enact it are too flawed to be acceptable. The movie notes this in its closing moments and is exactly right. The problem with a message movie like this is that it either is accepted by everyone, making it pointless, or those who reject it simply don’t watch or ignore it. Hopefully some people see this movie and learn something about our incredibly flawed justice system and that changes still need to be made to fix it.

****