Review: ‘Red Sparrow’ Wants Desperately to Soar, but Barely Gets Off the Ground

Sooner or later, something had to give. The spy genre eventually had run its course. Of course, no one is likely to balk at anything that’s able to seem fresh and sprightly after almost a century. Sure, the last few years made it all too plain, with the biggest tentpole series getting long in the tooth. Even when studios would try to breath new life into the genre, like with Atomic Blonde, it was doing so on bald tires. It’s probably no surprise then that Red Sparrow is a mixed bag of goods. Then again, no one really gets an “A” just for effort. What shows up here is more like a “D+”.

Red Sparrow

20th Century Fox 

After a terrible accident that leaves her with a broken leg, budding talented ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself on the skids. Not only was the dance company paying for her apartment, but also provided care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). Enter Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer, who comes with a modest proposal: help obtain state secrets and in return Dominika and her mother needn’t worry ever again. Vanya senses great potential in his niece, offering her up to a remote school for “Sparrows”. These are spies whose specialty is the art of seduction. Russia uses their bodies to steal valuable intel and in return they get to live. Or at least you’re lead to believe, because a movie like Red Sparrow is content picking and choosing which elements fit its bill at any given moment, rather than actually exploring a vibrant world.

For all the posturing on screen, the message is muddled and heavy handed. Phrases like “the cold war never ended, it shattered into a million pieces” are uttered hoping to give off a sense of foreboding dread, albeit one that’s mawkish at best.  The Russia that’s seen here, feels emblematic of the Russia of old. What makes the movie somewhat captivating is watching a strong willed woman who holds her individuality tight, facing off against men who represent the Russia of old. That sadly, in turn, leads to one of Red Sparrow’s biggest faults: the infallibility of its lead. This isn’t directly Lawrence’s, who is one of the best things in the picture, and time after time again bends over backwards in an attempt to elevate the material provided.

Red Sparrow

20th Century Fox. 

A decision like that doesn’t help the rest of the story, as boresome as it is. While Dominikia’s focus at least captivates, theres a concurrent thread pulled straight from “basic spy thriller 101”. Here, CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, heavy sighing through every scene) has a mole he needs to protect. He crosses paths with Lawrence and naturally superiors on both sides set them up to play the other. In the middle of the nonsene character actors like Cirian Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Iron and Richardson show up in key roles, only to be relegated to the wings. Strangely the same tact is used with Edgerton. Somewhere there must exist a cut where his background is delved into. He plays the part of a man fiercely loyal to his assets, but holds back a vulnerability that never gets explored. After all, something has to account for the lack of chemistry when Nate and Dominika share the frame. At least one hopes.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome is lack of commitment in tone. It hovers somewhere oddly between Black Book and Showgirls of all things, lacking Verhoeven’s intelligence, economy or delight in gleeful depravity. As unfair as it may seem that puts the majority of the blame on the shoulders of director Francis Lawrence. He’s always been a shrewd tactician in capturing visual splendor (which he does here too), but looses his character and stories to these tertiary details. By extension something the 50 Shades series is far more entertaining in its desire to become an erotic thriller through flailing histrionics. Red Sparrow has the same lofty aspirations, but does so attached to a lesser John Le Carre novel. This mismatch, from a narrative and propulsive standpoint, makes all the difference in the world. Trying to appease all masters, it ends up with egg on its face. A shame, given the engaging first hour.

20th Century Fox 

There are elements of Red Sparrow that work brilliantly. Cinematography and score alike are simply stunning. Lawrence gives it her all, leaving everything (and then some) on the table. The bouts of action that spring forth are energetic, if in short supply. When all is said and done though, this is a movie with the pacing of 90 minute feature, with the story of a 3 hour mini-series. The problem is, it tries to cater to both crowds, coming up short. In the world of espionage, that’s almost a death sentence.

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Review: 'Red Sparrow' Wants Desperately to Soar, but Barely Gets Off the Ground
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