Russian Spy-Thriller ‘Red Sparrow’ Will Leave You Cold

by Ben Martin

When you boil espionage fiction down, the genre pretty much has two types of stories. On the one hand, there is what I would refer to as the original brand of espionage. In other words, stories that are are slow-burn spy thrillers, focusing on the ins-and-outs of tradecraft. Then  there is the more action-oriented espionage thriller. Said latter type of spy fiction was created with James Bond and continued with Mission: Impossible. The recently-released Russian spy-thriller Red Sparrow falls into the former category of spy fiction. Despite looking like an utter rip-off of Black Widow, the film in review here presents something entirely different.

Based on the book by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow follows a young woman named  Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence). Dominika is at the height of her youth and talent, dancing as a star ballerina for the Russian ballet. Alas, after sustaining an injury that derails her career, Dominika’s left with few options. That is until she is recruited to become “A sparrow” for Russian intelligence. In the Sparrow program, Dominika will be trained in spy-craft and specifically, how to use her body and sex to achieve missions. Soon, the newly-minted Sparrow finds herself on her first mission. One which involves gaining information from C.I.A. agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) through using her training.

For this film, Jennifer Lawrence ( of the upcoming X-Men: Dark Phoenix) reteams with her Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems. Sadly, this team’s previous collaborations are much more successful. However, this re-teaming is of some merit as the director and cinematographer, along with the film’s production designers, have crafted visually-striking cinema in Red Sparrow. The slow-burning atmosphere and visuals match the movie and its cold Russian landscape beautifully. Alas, these strong suits aren’t enough to save this picture. Star Jennifer Lawrence seems to be phoning in her performance. Of course, matters aren’t helped by the fact that her Russian accent is on par with that of, “Moose and squirrel,” spouting Natasha of Rocky & Bullwinkle (1959). The actress couldn’t be more bored here; which is a shame because the rest of the cast do fine jobs. Unfortunately, the cast is ultimately wasted here.

Such is thanks to the film’s screenplay by Justin Haythe (of the upcoming Bohemian Rhapsody.) While the novel that the movie is based on may be quite the read, this screenplay doesn’t reflect as much. Red Sparrow unfolds in a slow and unentertaining fashion, and as it does so, you will see every twist coming. Beyond its pacing, though, this movie has a much larger issue. As you imagine, this flick is being marketed as having a bad-ass, female spy as its protagonist. A woman who can take care herself and take no prisoners while doing so.
Unfortunately, that’s not what Red Sparrow is interested in; nor is it who the character of Dominika is. On the contrary, her only real weapon is her sexuality. Multiple times throughout the picture, all the students in the Sparrow program are called sexually derogatory names. In fact, the program is continuously referred to as “Whore school.” These characters, particularly Dominika, aren’t so much spies as they are folks who are in a position where they must sexually exploit themselves to survive. Furthermore, Lawrence’s character is sexually assaulted numerous times, and justice is never served.
Worst of all, Dominika isn’t the heroine of her own story. Instead, she has to rely on the systems of government to succeed, ultimately. That fact, in conjunction with the gross sexual politics presented, makes this picture quite the unpleasant affair. Why the studio and the individuals involved with this movie thought it would be a good idea to release it now, I have no idea. Thankfully, we’re living in a society now where we’re far more aware of sexual misconduct and empowering oneself against such. This picture lacks such awareness and is incredibly ill-timed. In closing, I feel Red Sparrow will leave you cold. Despite being beautiful to look at, I implore you not to give this film your time.


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