Red Sparrow (2018)
Seductive. Deceptive. Deadly.
Look, I’m just going to start off by admitting that I don’t really dig espionage thrillers. Sure, most are well written and performed, but a large majority are really hard to follow, their plots usually way too convoluted to understand in one simple sitting. I am, however, a big fan of the curvaceous Jennifer Lawrence and filmmaker Francis Lawrence — the pair having worked together in the last three installments of the Hunger Games. In fact, it could be argued that the success of the aforementioned has helped usher in a new wave of female-centered features, movies that see women stepping into roles typically inhabited by men, these empowered heroines crunching and bruising their way into cinematic glory.
J-Law and Lawrence’s latest, Red Sparrow, follows in the footsteps of female-centric flicks such as Charlize Theron’s Cold War spy caper Atomic Blond (2017) and Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), Sparrow less complicated than the former but more subdued than the latter, and perhaps the first truly divisive picture of 2018.
Trading the fictitious Panem for Mother Russia, Red Sparrow opens when we meet Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a famed Russian ballerina who dances for the Bolshoi Ballet and cares for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson) in a relatively modest flat. One night, Dominika’s dreams are shattered, quite literally, when she’s performing in front of the glitterati in a dazzling red and gold get-up (in my opinion, one of the film’s very best sequences) and suffers an on-stage accident after her partner — Ukrainian dancer slash actor Sergei Polunin — slips up. Sadly, Dominika’s career-ending injury also means that it’s kaput for her ballet-sponsored housing and medical care, which has been helping her support her bed-ridden mom.
After her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) — deputy director of the SVR, Russia’s external intelligence agency — informs Dominika that her partner deliberately destroyed her career so that he could get his girlfriend into the company (as an understudy), she, very quickly, takes her revenge. Turns out, this was a test on Vanya’s behalf, the bureaucrat offering to help Dominika out (financially) if she performs special jobs or assignments for his agency. First up, she’s tasked with seducing a politician named Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad) in a fancy-schmancy hotel room, the whole situation sharing parallels with the icky Harvey Weinstein stories. While the cajolery starts off okay, Dominika winds up witnessing Dmitri’s murder at the hands of a stranger that later reveals himself as Simyonov (Sergej Onopko), a nasty Russian working for Vanya. Set up by her uncle, who confesses that he intended to murder Ustinov all along, Dominika is given one last ultimatum, and that is to either work for the government or be executed.
From there, our protagonist is shipped off to a ‘Red Room’ type structure known as State School 4 or as she puts it ‘whore school,’ where she’s trained in the art of psychological manipulation by a stern, sadistic headmistress who goes by the pseudonym ‘Matron’ (a very good Charlotte Rampling). At the facility, recruits (men and women) are forced to endure brutal acts of sexual humiliation and torture as they’re taught to develop thick skins, learning how weaponize their sexuality, the students becoming ‘Sparrows’ — operatives that use their bodies as utensils to extract information from targets. A scene in which the former Mockingjay strips down to her birthday suit to humiliate a male student (who’d attempted to rape her earlier) could be seen as too disquieting or uncomfortable for some, J-Law sitting against a desk with her legs spread eagle in front of her peers. Skirting a fine line between exploitative and empowering, it’s probably best left for the individual to decide how they feel about some of these more polarizing moments.
Before her training is complete, however, Dominika is sent to an icy-cold Budapest for her first assignment, which is to attract the attention of a guy called Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an American C.I.A agent who’d been cloaking a mole high up in the Russian regime. As expected, the spies (who’d been trained to conceal their true emotions) fall for one another, Dominika being drawn deeper and deeper into a forbidden romance (that may or may not be the real deal) with her target, the Sparrow finding herself pinned between her personal interest in Nate and her duty to her country.
Written by Justin Haythe, A Cure for Wellness (2016), and based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews (who was formally a C.I.A. operative himself), Red Sparrow is a bit of a complex slow burn, one that’s not too difficult to follow, with Dominika’s true motives never made clear up until the very last reel (and yes, the finale’s surprising). Sadly, our heroine’s rise from proficient dancer to cold-blooded killer is pretty conventional for a film of this ilk, the journey heightened by bursts of Verhoeven-esque violence — a nasty torture scene involving a skin-grafting machine comes to mind — along with an analysis of his usual sensual power dynamics. With that said, the most suspenseful sequence comes at round about the mid-way point, when Dominika joins forces with the Americans as a double agent to make an exchange with Mary-Louise Parker’s Stephanie Boucher, a boozed-up chief of staff of an American senator, who’s looking to make some big money by selling classified information to the Russians via a bunch of floppy discs (I thought this was set in the present day?).
Red Sparrow is elevated by its technical merits, the cold, seedy cinematography by Jo Willems, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), and stylish production design by Maria Djurkovic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), capturing the film’s chilly Carolco era vibe. And let’s not forget Jen’s ravishing array of sexy outfits by costume designer Trish Summerville, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), the highlight being that revealing, head-turning swimsuit that features in all of the trailers.
Just on that, Jennifer Lawrence chalks up another stellar performance as lead Dominika, the gifted 27-year-old pulling off a convincing Russian accent (which, admittedly, sounded jarring in ads) whilst exposing herself both emotionally and physically, Lawrence somehow managing to keep her dignity in tact throughout the picture’s many uncomfortable scenes. And oh, she also learnt how to dance ballet, which is no easy feat! Similarly, the reliable Joel Edgerton, The Gift (2015), is solid as Nate, the talented Aussie portraying his character as a level-headed kinda guy who’s honest in his objectives and intentions. Irrespective, when it comes to the twosomes on-screen charisma as a couple, Edgerton and Lawrence lack the kind of chemistry that’s required for their connection to sizzle. Support players are also top-shelf. Jeremy Irons, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and Ciarán Hinds, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), add weight to proceedings as top Russian officials General Vladimir Korchnoi and Colonel Zakharov, respectively, while Douglas Hodge, Robin Hood (2010), pops up as Maxim Volontov, Dominika’s greasy Budapest handler, who’s open about firing girls that won’t ‘do it’ with him!
If we’re being totally honest though, we’ve seen this type of story multiple times before, Red Sparrow failing to enhance the well-worn double-crossing ‘tough girl’ formula. Yes, I think Lawrence makes a better badass than Theron, but bar some good performances and a few shocking moments, we’ve seen this done better. I’m just happy that the Lawrences beat Marvel Studios to a non-MCU Black Widow origin film, Natalia Romanova’s back-story being ‘basically’ the same as Dominika’s. I guess Kevin Feige should really re-consider the whole spin-off thing now.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie