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.