With her bottle-blonde locks, facility with a knife and dour Eastern European playground, Jennifer Lawrence’s “Red Sparrow” is seemingly the 2018 version of Charlize Theron’s “Atomic Blonde.” But that’s where the comparisons end. While the ’80s Berlin-set “Atomic Blonde” was a violent, colorful, sexy and darkly absurdist film, Russian spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is epic, methodical and unfortunately plodding, jettisoning thrills for a stultifying moodiness.
The film is based on the novel by retired CIA spook Jason Matthews, who racked up over three decades of experience in the field. In the story of “Red Sparrow,” poor but politically connected ballerina Dominika (Lawrence) is drawn into a shadowy spy world by her high-ranking SVR officer Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) when her dance career is ended with a “Showgirls”-style sabotage. He uses her as bait for one of his targets, and with a dead businessman’s blood on her skin and no way to support herself or her ailing mother, she accepts his offer to train as a “Sparrow” – spies who use sex and seduction to psychologically manipulate and collect information from their targets.
Dominika quickly flames out at Sparrow school – she’s simultaneously resistant and compliant to the sadistic headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling. But she proves her mettle with a would-be rapist, destroying him physically and mentally. Turns out she’s a natural, so they send her off to Budapest for her first gig, to gain the trust of a U.S. spy named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who’s been receiving intel from a mole buried deep in the ranks of Russian security.
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Francis Lawrence’s filmmaking in “Red Sparrow” is as seductive as its heroine, and he creates gorgeous compositions in a palette of red and gray, knit together with seamless editing. The film is beautiful to look at, but it’s empty and meaningless. The sensational images add up to a whole lot of provocation, but there isn’t a shred of substance to be found. Matthew’s book offers promises of authenticity, but what comes through in Justin Laythe’s script and the casting choices – there are no recognizably Russian actors on screen and bad accents abound – is just a hollow caricature of Russia, wrapped up in a plot that’s both overly convoluted and dull.
It’s difficult to enjoy watching Dominika seduce and destroy because she’s acting against her will, forced to be a Sparrow to keep her mother cared for. In “Atomic Blonde,” Theron’s Lorraine was a professional who did her job and had fun with it. Dominika, despite her mysterious talent for this line of work, is ultimately a victim, pimped out by her uncle, pressed into sexual service for the state. There’s nothing empowering about this character or her story.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika with a placid poker face to preserve her secrets and the script’s – we never know when she’s being sincere and with whom, and it’s all in service of keeping the twists and turns in place. But since we never know her, we can never relate to her, understand her or get on her side. Her only motivation is her sick mother, but it’s such a shallow subplot. She struggles against her roles while also taking to it like a duck to water, and we never understand her, or even know who she is. Maybe that’s idea, and we’re all just victims of the Red Sparrow herself.
starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Joely Richardson, Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. Running time: 2:19