Review | Red Sparrow (2018)
Red Sparrow is Francis Lawrence’s fourth outing with star Jennifer Lawrence following the final three films of The Hunger Games Saga. Jennifer Lawrence plays a former Bolshoi ballerina who, in hopes of securing healthcare for her sick mother, joins the Sparrow Program and becomes an elite undercover Russian spy, hoping to seduce CIA agent Nate Nash. It also stars Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Mary-Louise Parker, and Ciarán Hinds.
For a film called Red Sparrow, it’s surprisingly dull, gray and lifeless. If not for this review, I’d have walked out of Red Sparrow. It was handily the most boring movie I’ve seen in a long time–and it’s billed as a spy thriller with a heavy Russian influence, clearly trying to follow in the footsteps of the significantly superior Atomic Blonde.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a Russian ballerina who has been injured yet still needs to take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). So, of course, her uncle comes along and asks her to seduce someone for him so that they can replace his phone. She does, and he then sends her to – as the film itself even calls it – “W***e School” so that she can become a Sparrow, known the world over as spies whose primary tool is seduction. This leads to an interminable series of scenes at State School Four, where the Matron (Rampling) teaches young, beautiful men and women how to be sexy spies, forcing them to strip and have sex and watch sex and jog sometimes.
The Sparrows are psychologically programmed to do whatever is necessary to get what they need. The Matron lectures them constantly, breaking them down through humiliation and scorn, then offering odd nuggets of wisdom: “Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must intuit what is missing and become the missing piece. Find beauty in the human delusion that the pleasures of the flesh will make us whole again.” At least the film offers a darkly realistic view of human nature: we’ll compromise too much for the pleasures of the flesh. Frankly, I could’ve just used a big training montage that lets me see her learning to fight, rather than watching her get beaten and raped. Again.
This is the first time I really haven’t liked Jennifer Lawrence in a film. She looks bored throughout – and I think that’s supposed to be her Russian stoicism in the face of the long cold winters. In fact, the number of people I liked in this film is a grand total of one: Mary-Louise Parker’s traitorous (and traitorously underdeveloped) Stephanie Boucher. She’s drunk every moment she’s on screen, almost as a nod to the audience, saying, “Yeah, this is a terrible movie that I’ve just got to drink my way through.” She’s the best part, by far, and she’s there for a whole five minutes. Her scene almost made up for not walking out. Almost.
What’s worst here is that the final ten minutes try to pull an Ocean’s Eleven move by bringing everything together as though there was some master spy plan all along. I call BS on that, because I caught myself for a moment or two falling into their trap, thinking, “Oh cool, they’re tying it all up in a nice bow!” But nothing was set up for that payoff. None of it was earned. There were a few gratuitous shots that should have had a title overlay in big letters and an arrow saying: “She’s doing spy stuff now!” But there is no sign, other than random people in the film telling us, that she’s a good spy.
Red Sparrow should have been Marvel’s Black Widow film. It’s based on a book by Jason Matthews, not a ripoff of Marvel, but the book looks significantly better than what’s been delivered in theaters this weekend. I’m going to read it after this, maybe see what could have been. Save yourself a disappointing, boring trip and go see one of the much better Oscar nominees, or rent Atomic Blonde, where they’re at least having some fun.