Let RED SPARROW Fly Right By

An empty addition to the spy genre.

Recently, Jennifer Lawrence scored her first ever Razzie nomination for mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s upfront comment on the horrors of society. The film’s divisiveness was stronger than anyone could have imagined due to the places mother! ventured. Lawrence’s nod from the Razzie’s can be seen as the purest of backlash the film has experienced since premiering last September. Anyone who saw her deep commitment and the different levels of vulnerability she took her character to can see that. It’s a sad comment on the combined attitudes of both the critical media and the moviegoing public that the actress’s follow-up project, the lifeless spy drama Red Sparrow, is being given a kinder and somewhat more enthusiastic reception than the one which greeted mother!. Dull and uninvolving to no end, Red Sparrow does nothing more than make audiences yearn for the great spy thrillers of the past, while wasting the talents of its capable cast and offering up further proof that the vitality of the star vehicle is a thing of the past.

In Red Sparrow, top Russian ballerina Dominika (Lawrence) sees her career come to an end after suffering a devastating accident while performing. When her KGB Official uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her the opportunity to enter into a spy training program to become what is known as a “sparrow,” Dominika accepts. Soon, she is sent to a training camp devoted to teaching young men and women how to use their bodies as weapons against enemies. However all of Dominika’s training, as well as her loyalty to Russia, is put to the test when she encounters American CIA agent Nate (Joel Edgerton), whom she begins to develop feelings for.

A handful of minutes into Red Sparrow, and the realization of the kind of movie it was hoping to be becomes clear. The film tries so hard to fit into the sort of mold that John Le Carre adaptations pioneered in their heyday mixed with deep psychological elements. While Red Sparrow certainly looks as if it could be set in a John Le Carre universe, it either doesn’t care enough to engage with it’s characters on anything deeper than base level, or simply doesn’t know how to. This is extremely unfortunate given the movie’s aims to chart the creation of a spy while mixing in some feminist undertones. To their credit, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe do manage to shake things up a bit with several cat-and-mouse moments between Dominika and Nate. There is also an on-going questioning of alliegance, with Dominika never fully embracing her role as a spy, as if she’s not sure which world she wants to belong to. However, such elements are too small and fleeting to ever do Red Sparrow any kind of real good.

On the whole, Red Sparrow feels far too plodding and dragging to be anything close to intriguing. This is essentially an action spy thriller without much of the aforementioned labels. Throughout the film you see people talking about doing stuff including killing characters and making deals, without really doing anything. It doesn’t help that Dominika herself is the most unresponsive part of the film. The character is written as reactive for the bulk of the movie and is seen throughout the seemingly endless two hours simply listening and observing those around her, barely registering as a participant herself. One wishes that Dominika would take a more proactive stance in her own story a la Charlize Theron’s Lorraine in Atomic Blonde. The saddest aspect of her character’s trajectory is that in spite of several opportunities to prove otherwise, Dominika never seems to develop a knack for how to use her sexuality and at times seems afraid of it given how awkward the sexual encounters in Red Sparrow come off. The movie makes an effort to inject some energy by amping up its shocking moments of torture to compensate for its anemic pace. Despite the effort however, such a tactic feels as empty and hollow as the film’s heroine.

Roger Ebert once said that he tended to go easy on actors when it came to judging them in movies which were beneath their talents since they can only do so much with what their given. With a case like Red Sparrow, his point proves more than true. While Lawrence and Edgerton as fine as they can be in their roles (although you can tell the nothingness of Lawrence’s character leaves her noticeably bored at times), the one-note script gives them “images” of spies rather than actual spies to play. The result is a pair of lifeless performances from two more than competent actors. The supporting cast including Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and Joely Richardson try, but their earnestness in Red Sparrow draws nothing but unintended laughs mixed with sorrow. The lone bright spot is Mary-Louise Parker as a boozy American politician who hilariously dives into her limited screen time.

Truly the most frustrating aspect of Red Sparrow is the fact that the film is actually able to do right on a couple of fronts. For one, the film’s opening sequence which consists of a jumping back and forth between the cloak-and-dagger actions of Nate’s mission and a command performance by Dominika at the Bolshoy is so well-cut and timed, perfectly establishing both characters. Likewise, the overall setting and atmosphere of Red Sparrow are totally in-keeping with the kind of world Lawrence’s character would find herself in. Everything from the timeless dreariness, to the chilly surroundings feels like so perfectly in tune with the world in which spies exist. However despite these lone flourishes, Lawrence’s chopless direction, a lazy script and his star’s half-baked role, collectively work to keep the film from being anything close to what everyone involved surely hoped it would be.

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