Fresh off her first Razzie nomination, Jennifer Lawrence is back in Red Sparrow, a Russia v U.S. spy thriller set in the modern day. Based on the novel by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow is directed by Francis Lawrence, the director of all four Hunger Games movies. The best thing about this movie is that from the outside it looks like it could be an origin story for Marvel’s Black Widow, but that isn’t the case. Instead, Red Sparrow is a sloppy attempt at a spy drama that feels commercially designed to get its leading lady naked and in as many sexual poses as possible. Disguised as a film about survival and gaming a patriarchal system, Red Sparrow is just another movie that thinks it can profit off sexual violence towards women and shocking gore.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a ballet dancer who is forced into a situation much bigger than herself. A woman with a knack for determining what makes people tick, Egorova is a great fit for the sparrow program, a group of elite spies that help further the Russian state’s foreign goals. Audiences see Egorova attend a school in a remote part of Russia to be trained in tasks like lock picking and sexual manipulation to assist her on her path. Unfortunately, the premise is more interesting than the final product because Red Sparrow gets bogged down by a boring story and poor performances that keep it from being as captivating as other modern spy films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are multiple points throughout the film where Lawrence momentarily drops her Russian accent and it’s hard not to giggle despite the film’s serious nature.
It’s hard to pinpoint the movie’s failure on just one thing because it feels like a big mess. The story is tedious and dull and the main character seems to completely lack a sense of agency during most of the film. For a movie that was marketed as a story about a badass chick, Red Sparrow sure does a lot to make her appear worthless. She has a clear motivation and is certainly an intelligent woman, but she never comes across as likable. One thing all good spy movies have in common is a solid and interesting protagonist, but Egorova never feels like an engaging character, even as audiences watch her slowly grow and mature throughout the film.
Something that stands out from the viewing experience is how brutal the movie is. While the marketing tried to frame this movie as somewhat of an action thriller, that’s really not the case. The little action that does appear in Red Sparrow is graphic and a few sequences even border on light torture porn. If blood or violence makes you a bit squeamish, this probably isn’t the movie for you because it is intense and full of moments designed to make viewers uncomfortable. The upside to making the movie so graphic is Lawrence does a good job setting up how high the stakes are and how brutal this world without ever explicitly saying anything.
The rest of the film’s ensemble does a decent job filling in as both Russian and American spies. Joel Edgerton plays the male lead in the film, Nathaniel Nash, a CIA agent with a personal stake in ongoing intelligence missions in Russia. His relationship with Egorova makes up a big part of the movie’s emotional core, but it’s never interesting or believable enough to pull viewers in. Alfred himself, Jeremey Irons, plays a Russian intelligence officer who sounds more British than Slavic. The problem is, none of these characters come across as believable and no one stands out in any way. It’s not that anyone is necessarily unlikable, it’s that none of the characters are interesting or fleshed out enough to actually make viewers care what happens to them.
Despite the film’s relatively flat, basic directing, the best part of Red Sparrow is the cinematography. Shots set in the Moscow subway or against snowy backdrops all leap off the screen and look gorgeous. One shot in particular of Lawrence looking tiny next to the massive Russian defense headquarters stands out as a shot that works from both a design and symbolic standpoint, but there weren’t too many powerful moments like that as the movie progressed. Coming in at two-hours and twenty-minutes, none of the sequences stand out as noteworthy and the final product feels bloated.
Ultimately, Red Sparrow is just missing a key ingredient to make it an enjoyable spy film. The twists don’t land as hard as they should and none of the scenes feel memorable. For a film that feels like a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, it also fails at making her come across as a strong leading lady. The book the film is based on already has one sequel and another on the way, but I sincerely hope this film isn’t successful enough to warrant a sequel. It’s a shame a better director didn’t get their hands on this franchise because it had potential and interesting ideas sprinkled throughout, but things just never clicked for me.
Final Score: 5.5/10