RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up

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red sparrow

RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.

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Wonder Woman Leads the Way as Superheroes Save JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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As a kid, I slightly preferred the Marvel superhero comics to DC, but I pretty much enjoyed them both.

But in the past decade, in the movie world, Marvel’s movies have been far superior to what DC has churned out.  The DC films have been largely problematic. That changed a bit earlier this year with the release of WONDER WOMAN (2017),  the best DC film to hit the big screen since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

The upward trend continues with the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017), the tale of a group of DC superheroes working together for the first time.  While not as good as Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, JUSTICE LEAGUE is another step forward, helped immensely by the presence of Wonder Woman, played once again by the astonishing Gal Gadot.

When a JUSTICE LEAGUE opens, Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead, but as every superhero fan knows, the Man of Steel is never gone forever.  Movie fans will know as well, as soon as they see Henry Cavill’s name listed prominently in the opening credits.

With Superman gone, the door is open for the powers of darkness to make Earth their own, because frankly, while other superheroes may be tough, it seems only Superman can keep the truly heinous baddies from strutting their stuff.  In this case, it’s Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) who centuries ago was banished by an alliance between the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the humans.  With Superman dead, Steppenwolf returns to finish the job he set out to do eons before, namely, to destroy the world.

Realizing that Steppenwolf is a superior foe, Batman (Ben Affleck) assembles a team of heroes, including Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).  But even their combined strength isn’t enough to take Steppenwolf down, leading Batman to suggest the outlandish plan of resurrecting Superman from the dead, even if his newfound superfriends warn him against doing so. The young Flash nervously worries that such a plan could lead to Pet Sematary-like results.

I really enjoyed JUSTICE LEAGUE.  The script by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon works mostly because it keeps things simple.  The story is not overly ambitious and therefore avoids being overdone and complicated, as was the case with the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) which try as it might failed to establish a convincing relationship between Batman and Superman.  You could actually argue that the story here is rather stupid, but in this case, that doesn’t really matter because the strength of JUSTICE LEAGUE is its superhero characters, and the actors playings these roles all acquit themselves rather nicely.

Joss Whedon of course both wrote and directed THE AVENGERS movies, and his influence is apparent in this movie when the superfriends bicker and take jabs at each other.  And while Christ Terrio wrote BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, a movie I didn’t like, he also wrote ARGO (2012), a film I definitely did like.  There is a lot of smart dialogue in this film, which helps lift it above its very standard plot, like when Batman criticizes Wonder Woman for not having ever taking a leadership role.  He correctly points out that Superman has been a beacon for the world, but he had never even heard of Wonder Woman until recently, and he accuses of her hiding in the shadows during the past century.

It’s safe to say that after the success of WONDER WOMAN, one of the biggest draws of JUSTICE LEAGUE is not Batman or Superman, but Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Gadot does not disappoint.  She was clearly my favorite part of this movie, and when she is on-screen, the film is at its best.  She possesses such a strong screen presence, she’s astonishingly beautiful, and is completely believable as an unstoppable warrior princess.

But Wonder Woman alone wouldn’t be enough to save a movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE, and thankfully, her superhero counterparts are also quite good.

While I didn’t really like the look of Batman’s cowl and costume, Ben Affleck is quite effective as the caped crusader.  It’s a convincing performance, and I liked Affleck even better here as Batman than in BATMAN V SUPERMAN.  There are also plenty of potshots made by his friends at his lack of super powers.  At one point, he’s asked just what his superpowers are, and he answers, “I’m rich.”

Strangely, when Affleck appears as Bruce Wayne, he seemed a bit fleshy in the face which works against the idea that Batman is a fit fighting machine.  There’s also a neat nod to the Michael Keaton BATMAN movies here, as composer Danny Elfman incorporates his original BATMAN theme from that 1989 flick into some of the Batman scenes.

Likewise, Henry Cavill scores high as Superman.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite Cavill performance as the Man of Steel.  He comes off as sincere and is far less troubled than in previous films with concerns over how the world views him.  It seems death has been a good thing for Superman, as while he was gone, the world seemed to have missed him.

Ezra Miller is fun as the Flash, although at times the humor seemed a bit forced.  I also enjoyed Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and really enjoyed Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who gets some of the better lines in the movie.

The film is also helped by a strong supporting cast, led by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Adams isn’t in the movie much, but to have Adams in a cast as a supporting player can only add to a movie, and her few scenes are all nicely done.  Jeremy Irons gets a decent amount of screen time as Alfred, and he makes the most of his scenes.

Diane Lane is effective as Clark Kent’s mother Martha Kent, and Connie Nielson reprises her role from WONDER WOMAN as Queen Hippolyta. J.K. Simmons appears briefly as Commissioner Gordon, and Amber Heard is seen all too fleetingly as one of Aquaman’s associates, Mera.

Director Zack Snyder achieved better results here than he did with both BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and MAN OF STEEL (2013). One of the ways that JUSTICE LEAGUE is superior is Snyder controlled himself here and didn’t film action scenes that went on for too long.  They are generally quick, efficient, and well done.

I thought the pacing was especially good.  The film runs for just about two hours, but it flew by for me and felt more like 90 minutes.

Like its Marvel counterparts, there are a couple of after credit scenes.  The first one is well worth the wait, but the second at the very end involves a certain villain played by a certain actor who I really don’t want to see again.  Oh well.

The film also opens with a curious bit featuring Superman, which was enjoyable enough, but I thought at some point in the movie the story would return to this moment, but it never does.

JUSTICE LEAGUE features a straightforward and rather simple if not predictable story, but in this case it seems to be just what these DC films have needed.  The DC films that haven’t worked have been bogged down with plot points that didn’t work and action scenes that went on for far too long.  It truly seemed as if they were struggling to find their identity.

WONDER WOMAN established its identity right away, and while JUSTICE LEAGUE isn’t quite as successful as WONDER WOMAN, it too establishes itself right away.  It sacrifices plot for characterization, using most of the screen time to establish its Justice League personalities, and the film is better for it.

The superheroes here not only save the world, but the movie.

As such, JUSTICE LEAGUE is highly recommended.

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