Synopsis – Ballerina Dominika Egorova is recruited to ‘Sparrow School,’ a Russian intelligence service where she is forced to use her body as a weapon. Her first mission, targeting a C.I.A. agent, threatens to unravel the security of both nations.
My Take – I love spy thrillers, as this one genre if done right, can end up paying off quite well by taking us into grim reality of international espionage and let us enjoy the relishing in the glitz and glamour required in the line work. When I saw the teaser trailer of this latest film from Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, I was instantly hooked, as this one seemed to be one that could have the right mix of style, sex, and thrill, and of course with Jennifer Lawrence leading it, prospects seem high, despite its severe resemblance to last year’s Atomic Blonde starring Charlize Theron. However, this film despite its potential falls very short, as I was honestly dismayed by this film in almost every way. The script is really poor with very basic, boring dialogue and the terrible dialogue is further exacerbated by very poor direction and editing. The film is all over the place, it is very messy, the way scenes are cut just seems all wrong. It actually feels like a rough first draft rather a final cut. I think much more time needed to be spent on the screenplay and then in the editing suite to clean this film up. This film had all the potential to be a great film, but unfortunately it fell very short. Yes, the film does offer a lot of style, mostly even more than substance. Plus, it’s not as overly smart as it believes it is, as the film doesn’t offer any thing that makes you feel like you experienced an excellent twist or exquisite storytelling. Based upon the novel from former CIA official Jason Matthews, the story follows Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), a Russian prima ballerina who due to a catastrophic injury during a performance is forced her out of her rising career to be quickly replaced by her rival, putting the welfare of her very sick mother, Nina (Joely Richardson) in jeopardy. Seeking this as an opportunity, her estranged uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a highly-placed Russian spy official makes her an offer to work for the state in order to let the payments coming in. Upon agreeing, Dominika is send to train as a Sparrow under the tutelage of the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) at her academy, where selected agents are trained to use their good looks & seduction skills to skim information out of targets.
Once her training completes, under the supervision & approval of General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and Zakharov (Ciarán Hinds), she is send to Budapest to find and seduce Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA handler, and coax out of him the identity of a Russian mole he was protecting. Sucked into a web of intrigue, Dominika needs to use all her skills and charms to complete her mission, as Nate is trying his best to turn her to the other side. What follows is a long list of predictable double crosses, amid violent scenes of gore and torture, that the film loses any shred of credibility. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to see what I assumed to be a star vehicle flesh out into a grimly gruesome thriller, was actually a very different and unique kind of spy film. With the focus more on the psychological aspect than the usual gadgets and the fight skill, the film has some genuine moments of beauty, with some wonderful shots sprinkled throughout the first ten minutes, as we begin to witness the transformation of Dominika, as an innocent ballerina to a ruthless, strong-willed, manipulative spy. That is until the plot progressed and fell completely flat, with a tone so terribly uncomfortable throughout certain scenes, a run time of 140 minutes begins to seem like a long way to go. This film, which is meant to be a modern-day spy thriller that harks back to the days of the cold war thrillers of the 70s/80s, fails to update as such appropriately, as instead comes across as a piece of vitriolic propaganda and little else. The propaganda being – to remind us Russians in general are twisted, violent and manipulative control freaks, while all Russian men are partial to being woman-beaters and love to rape, on the other hand, the CIA are all good boys who occasionally mess up, but are out to free the world from tyranny and have everyone’s best interests at heart. Maybe the Soviets do have female spies who do this sort of thing, but do we really need to see women beaten if they don’t drop their clothes and have sex with whomever to gather information? The film’s central themes don’t offer much in the way of making up for its lackluster spy thrills either. The story is meant to be one of female empowerment showcasing a character who succeeds in a man controlled world but still maintains her femininity and doesn’t adopt a “man’s role”. That sounds great on paper and for a while I thought the film might actually pull it off. Sadly it ends up playing a bit more like a male sex fantasy about confident women rather than an actual story about the above mentioned. The training academy sequence specifically is extremely contradictory in its messages. The protagonist outsmarting everyone is undercut by just how inefficient every other character is. The pacing of the film was terribly slow, too. I can enjoy slower burning films, but in good films, you’re fed information at a steady pace to keep you invested, here, it felt like we were told something, then there would be a half hour slump, then the plot would resume. It also turns out watching Lawrence as a dancer ends up being meaningless and adds nothing to the plot, and the “sparrow training” section of the film is an absolute joke. Never once was I intrigued by any of that angle, instead viewing it all as filler to just keep the wheels turning and everybody in their proper places. The second half of the film improves slightly, as there is a little bit of interesting intrigue between Nash & Dominika. Again here, though, the problem is that it all just devolves into a confusing mess of deception and counter-deception, to the point where I was utterly confused as to what it all meant.
Too many names, places, dates, and such to keep straight, and none of it was compelling enough to really suck me in and make me care. The sluggish script introduces some sketchy stock characters, and then they disappear, only to return later for no apparent reason. Their motives made no sense and their allegiances shifted throughout the film as par for the course in these espionage thrillers. The jerky story structure goes global from one scenic European city to the next with occasional stops in Russia, but everything seemed off kilter as did some anachronistic props that had this reviewer questioning the time period of the story at one point (floppy discs?). By the time you get through a quarter of the mind-numbingly long, 140 minutes, you are left in no doubt of the film’s predictable outcome. This inevitable plot line is labored along by the director’s attempts to mask it with half-assed twists and turns that just don’t feel plausible when putting it in the life or death, professional espionage scenario that the story is supposed to portray. Another disappointing factor revolves around the lack of depth to the romance between the Sparrow and the American agent. There is supposed to be certain tenderness within the relationship, challenged by the undercover motives driving the story, which was clearly missing here. Also missing is the relevance of the search for the Russian mole and the American agent’s desire to safeguard his identity. Both are pivotal to the ongoing story. This all comes down to director Francis Lawrence who does a sub-par job at directing, building no suspense at all. To keep the film going audience awake, he throws in location sights to add authenticity while objectifying Jennifer Lawrence in every conceivable nude scene in the most voyeuristic way. He also prolongs the torture sequences with a graphic glee. It is a exploitive cinematic step backwards. Oh then there are the very poorly handled scenes depicting the gratuitous nudity, and violence. Yes, the sex and violence in this film are just plain awful to watch. Being gory and shocking, and amateurish – as if it was being written and filmed by a director who was delusional enough to imagine it served as a motivation for Dominika but as a woman let me tell you there was nothing motivating about those ridiculously bad rape and torture scenes. The premise itself is engaging enough to keep you intrigued as to where it will all end up, but the third act of this film tries too hard to impress its audience, using multiple twists that feel forced in order to bring closure to certain loose ends. Somewhere in here is a good film, but it feels a bit all over the place in terms of story and pacing. It tries to be dark and gritty during the opening third, then abandons that feel and flits from being ‘La Femme Nikita’ to something more like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ in other places. I know it goes for the ‘dark and gritty’ tone, but it ends up taking itself way too seriously. The film is littered with long, lingering shots of Lawrence walking slowly towards camera at the beginning of every scene while she stares off into the middle distance beyond the camera. It might have helped the film’s overall feel if it was a little lighter here and there with some more ‘fun’ elements thrown in, making it more of an action film. I was also disappointed in the usage of Jennifer Lawrence in the film and her lackluster performance isn’t helpful either, especially atrocious Russian accent. Jennifer Lawrence has always had a divided audience when it comes to her performances, and while I have enjoyed her in pretty much everything, unfortunately she is not my idea of a spy as has basically the same expression on her face the entire film and it’s hard to see her character arc. Despite his clear miscast, Joel Edgerton manages to be atleast serviceable. Mary Louise Parker was as quirky (and spaced out) as ever in her small role. Matthias Schoenaerts plays the devious spymaster uncle to a believable degree, while Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Irons are hamming it up along with Charlotte Rampling in an absolutely ludicrously over-the-top role. Joely Richardson and Bill Camp are wasted. On the whole, ‘Red Sparrow’ is a dull non-consequential spy flick which despite an interesting premise ends up being just a gratuitous affair.
Directed – Francis Lawrence
Rated – R
Run Time – 140 minutes