Subterfuge, misdirection, propaganda, blatant bald-faced lies. These are all well established tools of the trade when it comes to the world of international espionage. As such, it should come as no surprise that Jennifer Lawrence’s Russian spy Dominika Egorova often surrounds herself in a flurry of untruths during the course of Red Sparrow. What may surprise some though is that the film’s marketing did the same thing.
When the first trailer dropped for Red Sparrow, there were half-mocking jabs that we were getting a Marvel Black Widow movie before Marvel’s actual Black Widow movie. It was an easy enough joke to make as the apparent similarities between the Francis Lawrence directed spy thriller and the comic book superspy seem overt. Except they really, really aren’t the same at all. What gets sold in the trailer as an adrenalyzing, sexy espionage action thriller is in fact a (VERY) slow-burn spy drama. To be fair though, Red Sparrow starts off just as you would expect with hotel room assassinations, dimly lit spy exchanges, frantic foot chases to foreign embassies, locker room beat downs and high-speed motorcycle getaways on the freeway. And then this contemporary Cold War turns positively frigid.
Said earlier flurry of activity centers around Lawrence’s Dominika and Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash. The former is a celebrated prima ballerina in an esteemed Russian ballet company who has her bright career derailed through a crippling injury. Unable to provide for her sickly mother, Dominika’s oil-slick uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), her late father’s younger brother and Deputy Director of Russian Intelligence, offers her a lifeline: Use her feminine wiles to seduce a possible target for him.
A desperate Dominika relauctantly agrees. However, when the operation goes sideways thanks to her target’s rapey tendencies, Dominika becomes a loose end and is thus given a choice: death or enrollment in a special training program to produce “Sparrows”, spies who are primarily trained to use sexual manipulation to extract whatever is required through any means necessary.
Meanwhile Nash is a CIA operative embedded in Russia who blows his own cover to protect a highly valuable Russian mole. However, with said mole not wanting to deal with anybody else, his superiors have no choice but to put him back in the field despite his status. With the Russians now aware of Nash’s agenda, it’s decided that somebody needs to get close to him to find out who the mole in their organization really is. Somebody like the new Sparrow Dominika.
All of that certainly sounds like the recipe for a twisty Cold War-esque spy story where double… triple agents abound, and everybody’s true allegiances and intentions are as ephemeral as the morning mist in the Red Square. Is Dominika really developing feelings for Nash or is it all part of the Sparrow training? Is she loyal to her uncle for offering alternatives to both starvation and death (the latter being what Jeremy Irons’ Russian General Korchnor was advocating for), or does she secretly hate him? Has she been swept up in events far above her station or is she cleverly playing both sides against each other for some personal gain?
All of these questions and much more will be constantly swirling through your head as Justin Haythe’s screenplay adaptation of Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel unfolds. Well, those and one other question: Why the hell is it taking so long?
After Red Sparrow’s opening act of Dominika’s establishment and downfall as a ballerina and then her vicious training under the steely gaze of the Sparrow School’s Matron (Charlotte Rampling), we get a second act that feels like it lasts seven other acts as characters’ allegiances flip-flop back and forth more frequently than their laughably uneven Russian accents. And none of it is particularly thrilling. It’s intriguing – don’t get me wrong – especially so for fans, like myself, of realistic spy dramas more in the vein of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than Mission: Impossible. And dodgy accents aside (I don’t think Jeremy Irons even bothered), the cast certainly turn in solid showings, including a brief but singularly effervescent turn from Mary-Louise Parker.
However, you can’t help but feel that there is a better, more engaging spy thriller that could have been made with the same material underneath it all, and, frustratingly, we got the sleep-walking version instead. It doesn’t help that veteran composer James Newton Howard’s score is not particularly memorable, or that Francis Lawrence’s direction sometimes becomes almost utilitarian while in this central morass in the narrative. When he does punctuate the long slog, it’s with bristling violence and intrigue and he also ends things very strongly with an as-satisfying-as-it-is-surprising finale.
The just-competent filmmaking can’t be overlooked though. Nor can the pervasive air of sexual violence that stains nearly every aspect of the film. While Dominika is shown early to be incredibly driven, capable and even prone to a bit of passionate face-bashing herself, once she’s roped in by Ivan, nearly everything about her character becomes either a reaction to sexual brutality or her using sex to get what she wants. Hilariously for a spy school, literally the only practical skill taught to the Sparrows outside of Matron’s vague platitudes about exploiting human desires is the ability to pick locks.
To the talented Jennifer Lawrence’s credit, she does a great job of selling Dominika as a woman who takes the very sickening thing that was used against her initially and turns it around as a means of getting back at the type of people who put her in that position. It’s a physically brave performance from Lawrence, and there’s never any doubt that she’s the one in control. Some will also applaud her manipulations of lecherous men into their comeuppance.
Still, in a post #MeToo world, it’s very hard to deny that some of the story beats in Red Sparrow feel icky and that a large portion of the audience is going to be offended and incensed that of all the spy stories, this is the one that was chosen to be told. Personally, I will admit it didn’t affect me as much (operatives like the fictional Sparrows did exist) but it is definitely a noticeable eyesore. And that’s a shame.
Yes, Red Sparrow is marketed as a completely different movie than what it actually is, and when it’s bad it’s both torpid and unpleasant. But when it’s good though – like its enlivening opening and fantastic third (or is that eighth?) act twists – it’s really good. Just a pity we didn’t get more of that.
Last Updated: March 1, 2018
Bolstered by Jennifer Lawrence's very game showing, Red Sparrow can be both thrilling and twisty like the very best spy thrillers, but it's dragged down by a somnolent middle and a pervasive streak of sexual violence that will not sit well with some.