RED SPARROW Review

Red Sparrow is at once a movie that feels so calculated and well put-together that it should be obvious it knows what it is and yet this thing can't help but to feel all over the place. It knows what it wants to be, but doesn't accomplish as much. It has style for days and the feel of an epic spy saga, but the events that actually occur within these constructs couldn't feel more mediocre or forced. This is terribly disappointing considering the talent and money behind such a large, original production, but something about director Francis Lawrence's (I Am Legend, The Hunger Games franchise) latest never clicks in the way it should. Red Sparrow is one of those films that asks you to settle into it; where the viewer becomes so entrenched in the proceedings it should feel as if the viewer is still in the world of the film when walking out of the theater, but Red Sparrow never hits a stride in such a way that the audience is able to make this transition from spectator to participant. Instead, Red Sparrow quickly shows all of its cards by letting us know this thing is going to be as bleak and brutal as one can possibly imagine and then some. Red Sparrow is a film that takes advantage of its star's status and places Jennifer Lawrence in this role where she is trained to use her sexuality in ways that are to the advantage of the men controlling her (timely, eh?). Lawrence's Dominika as well as the movie itself consistently relay that she's doing what she's doing to regain this feeling of being special that she's recently lost, but this quest holds no weight due to the fact she's the star of the film and we more or less can guess this aspiration is going to be fulfilled even when the odds are stacked against her. All of this is to say that Red Sparrow may as well be known as the movie where J-Law learns to expertly cover up domestic abuse with top-of-the-line make-up rather than the one where she kicks ass and takes names because, as was noted earlier, there is very little that occurs here that lives up to the style and scope on which it is operating. Likely the biggest mark against Red Sparrow though, is the fact this opinion is coming from someone who generally basks in the dark and gritty tone of movies that like to take themselves seriously. Red Sparrow takes itself seriously, no doubt, and it has spurts of tension that compel as well as several locations and shot compositions that are downright breathtaking, but in the end the final product tries so hard to twist social expectations that it ends up feeling like cheap shock rather than frightening truth.

Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) tries to determine whose side Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is on in Red Sparrow.
© TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
This level of disappointment likely comes with the level of excitement that was brought to the film as Lawrence, the director, tends to guide his big budget tentpoles into interesting areas if not always the most successful ones. The look and tone of the film as conveyed in the promotional material couldn't help but intrigue and to have Lawrence, the actor, tackling something so overtly adult and so drastically different than anything in her filmography thus far only seemed a risk worth taking a chance on. As the opening shot appeared on screen without any sign of a title card it seemed safe to assume Lawrence had something up his sleeve as he interwove the necessary origin stories of Dominika as a famed Russian ballerina who supports her sick mother and Joel Edgerton's Nate Nash, a CIA operative working in Moscow. And while Lawrence does indeed take advantage of these eloquent prologue's to an extent he doesn't go for it in a way that justifies the scale of what the viewer has just witnessed therefore hinting at the problems with the film as a whole. In this introduction we see Dominika experience a career-ending injury in a moment that literally made this reviewer squirm in his seat. On the other side of the coin we are made privy to the fact that Nash has an asset in Russia with whom he is set to meet, but that he fears has been picked up on by local authorities. Nash acts out of instinct so as to protect his informant and puts himself on the radar of Russian intelligence more so than he already was. Nash's superiors, the always welcome Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey, force him to return to the U.S. where they hope to establish a new contact with Nash's asset. This is all well and good to begin with as the focus on both sides becomes establishing communication with and/or discovering the true identity of Nash's asset. Dominika's uncle, the brother of her deceased father, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a high-ranking official with Russian intelligence alongside Colonel Zyuganov (Ciarán Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons). After her aforementioned career-ending accident Egorov persuades his niece (more than once, in fact) to the fact that she has what it takes and is well-equipped to handle the kind of jobs he needs assistance with. More or less backing her into a corner, Dominika has no choice but to follow her uncle's wishes and attend "spy school" where she is to become one of the titular sparrows AKA an agent of mother Russia that is specifically trained to utilize her ability to sexually manipulate her victims into giving her what she wants and what her country needs.

It is at about the forty minute mark, as the first act comes to a definite close, that one will likely decide whether they are in or out on this long and sometimes sordid affair as the first act, while undeniably intriguing, is also the most cringe-worthy section of the film as Charlotte Rampling (trying her best to make this work) is forced to be taskmaster to all of these potential sparrows, but the training is so incessantly sexual that it's as if screenwriter Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness, Revolutionary Road), working from a novel by real-life CIA agent Jason Matthews, thought there was no other interesting angle from which to approach the material. Haythe does give Rampling some juicy dialogue such as, "The Cold War didn't end; it shattered into a million dangerous pieces..." or, "The West is drunk on shopping and social media," that convey a certain attitude and further serve to reinforce the tone, but never does anything come of these aphorisms. Rather, Dominika's sole lesson to learn is that of tricking her body into not being repelled by the subjects she will undoubtedly encounter and have to use it with as her body is seemingly her only weapon. After what feels like a rushed montage of as much and little to no progression on our protagonist's part the film decides to outright tell the audience it has been three months so that it may extract Dominika from the institution and send her on her first mission that has her cozying up to Nash after he has convinced his superiors to let him return to Budapest given his informant will talk to no one but him. By this point though, it has become apparent that no matter what it seemed Red Sparrow might have desired to be that it just doesn't have the will to execute as much in terms of how far it is willing to take the complications of the plot which feels weird to say given there is plenty of crossing, double crossing, and triple crossing that takes place. There are also the sections in which it seems the film is actually about to hit that plane it has been building to the entirety of its runtime, but just as long as it took for Red Sparrow to reach this point it seems it peaks just as fast. The movie does this weird thing of hitting these strides and essentially forcing the audience to sit up and pay attention, the viewer wanting to be enthralled, and while there are sequences that encapsulate all that Lawrence was aiming to accomplish and that Haythe was seemingly working to convey they are simply too few and far between to offer a wholly satisfying experience.     

Lawrence's Dominika was once a famed Russian ballerina who becomes one of her countries most necessary spies.
© TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
There is some credit to inherently be given to 20th Century Fox here for rolling the dice on what is a two and half-hour, R-rated, extremely violent and (again) incessantly sexual spy drama, but while the titular sparrows are supposed to be capable of performing tricks on the minds of others almost every scenario and conversation Lawrence's Dominika is confronted with is so pointedly sexual that the movie feels as if it only has so much to say about what a woman in such a position would be capable of and goes no further to try and explore this material beyond that of the woman's body as a tool or object. There is a line spoken in the film that goes something along the lines of, "If you don't matter to the men in power, you don't matter," in which it almost feels like the movie is trying to serve as some kind of analogy for women in Hollywood and while this may be true to some degree and is admirable it doesn't change the fact that Red Sparrow fails to be as consistently engaging as it should be given the genre and story with which it comes packaged. All of that taken into consideration this review thus far has largely reflected on the shortcomings of the film as they overshadow the many positives that Red Sparrow has to offer as well. First and foremost is James Newton Howard's understated score that the ear will pick up and rely on without cognizant knowledge of doing so until certain refrains are repeated. It fits the early nineties era in which a movie like Red Sparrow would have flourished feeling classically epic in its execution. And then there are the performances most notable of which is of course Lawrence who takes some major risks here and while the movie as a whole maybe doesn't payoff what is glimpsed through her capability to carry this thing on her own shoulders should be more than substantial. Sure, you've heard about her accent and how it may or may not flow in and out from scene to scene, but unless you're an expert in Russian accents you're not going to be bothered much. And sure, you've probably heard Lawrence does her first nude scene in the film, but it is (probably intentionally) the furthest thing from being sexy-in fact, the point of the scene is to prove how sex isn't about the image presented, but the attitude. More than these two noted aspects of her performance though, Lawrence allows the audience to buy into this scared, uneasy mentality Dominika possesses throughout much of the film while being able to layer it with how outwardly confident she has to be in order to remain alive. Edgerton is fine as well if not a particularly well-matched love interest for Lawrence while the supporting cast-especially Schoenaerts and a single scene-stealing appearance from Mary-Louise Parker-all turn in committed showings. Red Sparrow is beyond brutal, often squirm-inducing, but equally as hollow in large respect and still, when the final moments came the conclusion was surprisingly satisfactory even if the idea the film ultimately relays is that of how our world is often one big, ugly circle of running and reaping what we sow.