March 2, 2018
Spy film fans know there are basically two main subgenres: (1) the externally-oriented actioners in the vein of James Bond or Mission: Impossible and (2) the internally-focused, more cerebral conspiracy thrillers a la John le Carré or Three Days of the Condor. Red Sparrow attempts to straddle the line between the two and only barely achieves either one.
Fresh off her dark and twisted encounter with Darren Aronofsky (Mother! – jeez, I’m still reeling from that one), Jennifer Lawrence reunites with Francis Lawrence, director of the last three Hunger Games movies, for something a little lighter, right? Wrong. It’s made evident very early on that Red Sparrow is not going to shy away from intense brutality.
It all starts with a jaw-droppingly gruesome ballet injury (who knew that was a thing?), after which dancer Dominika Egorova is recruited by Russian intelligence and trains to become a super spy/seductress. Along the way, there are violent bludgeonings and several viciously brutal torture scenes. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were trying to compensate for the lack of Bourne-style action by upping the savagery. On the more cerebral side, Red Sparrow refuses to go all in with ponderous brooding and complex secondary characters, but instead zeroes in on the heroine, the only truly layered character in the film.
Like Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond or Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Jennifer Lawrence is able to do what those other great actors did, which is turn in a performance so impressive you soon forget the ridiculousness of the accent and just buy into the character. For years now, Lawrence has been able to sink her teeth into a wide range of roles and has owned every one of them. Vulnerable and threatening, stoic and impassioned, Dominika is no different and the depth of Lawrence’s performance absolutely carries the film.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the players. Joel Edgerton is an outstanding actor but his CIA agent, Nate Nash, is as flat as a sheet of paper. The constant presence of the two leads crowds out a pretty stellar supporting cast, including Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciaran Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, and Sakina Jaffrey – all of whom portray one-dimensional exposition-spouters and plot point bridges.
One imagines an alternate version of this movie where we still got the amazing J-Law performances AND had room for these great actors to shine. If you’re going to draft a team of all-stars, you should probably let them each have the ball once in while.
There will surely be much ado about the nude scenes, the Russian espionage topicality, and a powerful woman “weaponizing” her sexuality in an effort to take on The Man (aka patriarchal government agencies), but it’s mostly window dressing. The film looks great on the surface but there’s just not much substance underneath. Overall, Red Sparrow is a very watchable movie that has everything you would expect from a spy thriller: cloak and dagger operations, exotic European settings like Moscow, Budapest, and Vienna, sexy scenes of seduction, psychological manipulation, shocking betrayal, and a super-twisty ending. It checks off all the boxes but does nothing to set itself apart.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars