The proud are the first to fall. In present-day Moscow, Russia, the Cold War still rages on in the shadows, and being proud isn’t going to win it. To win it, Russia has developed a “Sparrow” program, a program that teaches recruits how to draw information out of targets using the means of seduction.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a ballerina forced to retire due to a devastating injury, is the latest to be recruited into the program. Well, recruited is a bit misleading; she doesn’t have a choice after being utilized by her Russian intelligence uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) for a mission that went wrong. It’s either the demanding Sparrow program or death, with the former chosen. Upon completion, Dominika must put her skills to the test by drawing information out of American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who has information of a mole within the Russian government. As she soon finds, no one is worth trusting in the game of espionage.
Unless it’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it can be difficult to get into spy thrillers because of the very nature of the business. Espionage is based around deception and misdirection and translating that to the silver screen makes for a detached viewing, only because what is shown during the course of the film probably means little by the end. That effectively sums up Red Sparrow, the film adaptation of the novel written by Jason Matthews.
Jason Matthews, former CIA agent, wrote his fictional novel with a lot of authenticity. That authenticity does carry over into the movie, directed by Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games, I Am Legend). Whether one is knowledgeable or not in the dark arts of foreign intelligence, things happen in Red Sparrow that don’t seem that far-fetched. There are moments that are certainly made for the movies, but surprisingly, much of it feels relatively grounded against a stark color palette. That goes for some of the brutal violence as well, which Francis does not shy away from. Even past the violence, Red Sparrow can be uncomfortable to sit through, with its main theme of gender power dynamics showcased in a myriad of ways.
There are good and intriguing scenes in Red Sparrow, and yet somehow, the film struggles to coalesce and hold interest consistently through the overlong 2:15 runtime. While they’re stylistically two different features, structurally, this feels a lot like Atomic Blonde in that a main character is looking for what amounts to a MacGuffin. There are a lot of Russian names and people (and American ones, for that matter) that are hard to get invested into because when it all plays out, most don’t matter. The evolution of Dominika from legendary ballerina to master manipulator can be tough to buy into. However, the ending is executed well, even if the actual final minute is sequel-bating in the worst way.
A lot about the other Lawrence has been said over the years, but with the release of Mother! and now her turn in Red Sparrow, we could be in for another phase of JLaw’s career. A very, very mature phase. Her character’s progression may be rushed, but Lawrence brings a lot of grit, fearlessness, and confidence to the star role of Dominika. Confidence is the key word. This movie fails on every level possible if the wrong lead actress is casted. Despite the sometimes flimsy accent, Lawrence still commits and it kind of makes her all the more impressive for it, weirdly.
If there were one notable oddity in her performance (which isn’t technically her fault), it’s that the chemistry with Joel Edgerton is tepid at best. Edgerton, a super talent in his own right, never looks all that comfortable here for whatever reason. It’s easy to see Michael Fassbender exceed in his role with the chemistry he forged with Lawrence in the X-Men universe. Francis Lawrence fills out the cast with accomplished heads. Ciarán Hinds , Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons, and Charlotte Rampling all show up and though their presence is appreciated, it doesn’t amount to much. Damn near stealing the show is Matthias Schoenaerts, with a character that has a lot of depth to him and allows the actor to chew scenery. Seriously, an entire movie could be based around him.
Red Sparrow doesn’t crush the polygraph test. Yet, it does pass it just enough thanks to unforeseen realism and two impressive performances.
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