Espionage, thrills and deception. Those are the kinds of things you think about when you picture a spy thriller. However, in recent years spy movies have taken a back seat to more well-rounded action flicks as these concepts have been incorporated into the genre as a whole over time making it difficult for spy movies to truly stand out. It’s been quite some time since a truly memorable spy-themed film has hit the big screen. Enter “Red Sparrow” which may not be the MOST memorable of this subgenre but compared to what we’ve gotten to this point in the 2010s it’s a breath of fresh air. Carried by gripping performances by it’s leads and unforgiving brutality that could make Jigsaw cringe “Red Sparrow” is an unsettling film that hits most of the right notes. Just how good is this spy flick? Let’s take a closer look in my review of “Red Sparrow”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Red Sparrow” is based on the 2013 Justin Haythe novel of the same name and is inspired by the real-life sexpionage agents known as ravens. In the film we find ballet dancer Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) who loses her place in the local theater lineup after her on-stage partner breaks her leg to benefit his lover. After Egorova enacts revenge, her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has a place of power among the Russian elite, offers her an opportunity to keep her home and provide medical care for her sick mother by becoming a sexpionage spy. This leads Egorova to become enrolled in a training academy for “sparrows”, professionals who use their good looks and clever deductions of people to extract information for the Russian government. Egorova excels and is charged with extracting the identity of a Russian mole from CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Putting everything on the line Egorova attempts to complete her mission while also playing double agent to the CIA and Russians leaving both governments, and the audience, waiting to see where her true allegiance lies.
“Red Sparrow” is led by Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most celebrated actresses of her time, as an ensemble cast comes together to bring this spy story to life. Lawrence is the focal point of the entire film as Dominika Egorova, a ballet dancer who was sabotaged by her on-stage partner and turns to a life of sexpionage at her uncles request to help maintain the healthcare and living conditions of her sick mother. While there have been arguments made that the film should have cast an actual Russian actress to portray the Russian lead Lawrence does a respectable job here pulling of the accent to near perfection (she does break character a couple of times) and giving us an innocent but strong female lead we can’t help but root for. Her character is smarter and more complex than we originally assume and as she transforms into an effective sparrow we see her personality evolve and her inner confidence take over her personality. Egorova is as complex as she needs to be, and Lawrence does a fine job keeping both us and the characters on screen guessing about her intentions. She drives the film and holds our attention even without the gratuitous nude and sex scenes a story like this demands. I enjoyed this performance and while it’s not Lawrence’s best or most layered character she’s still better than many of the best in the business today.
The other side of the espionage coin is Joel Edgerton as Nate Nash, a CIA agent who gains the attention of the Russian government after his rescuing of a mole. Once he resurfaces again in Budapest, as his mole won’t deal with any other American, he becomes Egorova’s first true assignment as she is charged with extracting the mole’s identity. Edgerton for me has always been hit or miss. Early in his career he came off as a bit pretentious, like he was trying too hard, but in recent years he’s leveled out. Here Edgerton is suave and cool but also surprisingly human for a cinematic CIA agent. Usually these characters fall into a pretty bland stereotype, taking themselves too seriously and being all business. Edgerton’s Nash is none of that. Yes, he’s confident, but he’s also reckless and has a heart which plays into his developing relationship with Egorova and his protection of the mole. Edgerton brings forth an agent we can relate to and one who lets his emotions determine many of his decisions which is unique for an American spy character as he’s actually more flawed and dangerously reckless than the Russian spy assigned to him despite his experience. There’s also great chemistry between Edgerton and Lawrence that make’s their blossoming romance believable and the sexual tension between the two is easy to embrace. Together they make a great pair that leads most of the action of this movie and help make “Red Sparrow” much better than it probably should have been.
The remainder of the cast is made up of small parts, but each actor holds their own. Jeremy Irons portrays a Russian general who is dead set against Egorova and shows an undying loyalty to the state. Matthias Schoenaerts (pictured above) plays the on-again-off-again somewhat-antagonist Ivan, Egorova’s uncle, who willingly puts his niece in harms way to provide Russian with a tool against the CIA and Charlotte Rampling makes an appearance as “Matron”, the headmistress of the Sparrow School who Egorova never seems to impress despite her accomplishments in training. Most of these characters take a back seat to Lawrence and Edgerton’s leads but all of them play important parts in the story and, for the most part, there aren’t a lot of wasted or underdeveloped roles here. There are a few, which I touch on farther down, but most of the B-cast of characters at least is pretty well done. We know exactly what we need to know about all of these figures and the fat is trimmed so that we don’t see minor character overdeveloped at the same time. It’s a nice balance and everyone comes together to create a pretty decent and engaging cast that never tries too hard but gives their all just enough to create a complete package. All in all the acting in “Red Sparrow” is nothing absolutely special but everyone holds their own and sells the story the way they needed to which is good enough for me.
Despite a few flaws I’ll get to father down “Red Sparrow” is a solid film. It’s imperfect, but we get everything we came to see out of it. It’s a movie about sexpionage and Russian versus the United States spy thrills and the film pays off by giving us a thrilling premise that even makes some James Bond films look pretty bland in comparison. Despite utilizing some clichés we get quite a few effective moments where we’re not sure if Egorova is going to get caught or make it out alive and her true intentions are kept a pretty deep secret from everyone, character and viewer alike, until the very end of the movie surprising us with a satisfying whammy I honestly didn’t see coming. It takes the formulas established by classic spy thrillers and films like the “Oceans” trilogy and combines all of them to make a very watchable story. You’re never sure what side the main character is truly on and both Americans and Russians are presented as flawed with similar ideologies but different missions that just happen to involve the same woman caught in between. It’s a lot of fun to watch and since the two leads ooze chemistry and bring out the best in their characters we feel invested in seeing how things play out. It’s a relatively balanced film that doesn’t beat you over the head with political bantering and instead focuses on the matter at hand, a woman who is caught between allegiances and has to decide who to support while protecting herself.
One of the films highlights is its brutality. There is a lot of torturing in this film as well as a lot of nudity. The training exercises the sparrows undertake dehumanize them into being sex symbols for their targets, forcing some recruits to do some pretty brutal things in order to impress. We don’t get to see a lot of it, but we do see Lawrence’s character forced into precarious situations, including stripping before the class to be taken by a fellow sparrow trainee who tried to rape her. The nudity is a bit gratuitous but it’s tasteful and plays into the plot despite my initial thoughts going into the film this was more than just an opportunity for Jennifer Lawrence to escape her Katniss Everdeen persona and satisfy the fantasies of adoring male (and possibly female) fans out there by getting a few extended boob shots. The sex, nudity and graphic look at human anatomy is part of the story and part of what the sparrows do so it doesn’t feel forced or inappropriate. It feels needed.
Then you add in the physical violence, including the torture scenes, and one very brutal and cringeworthy attack on Nate Nash that had me begging it to stop, and that too is also part of the story. It’s not brutality for the sake of brutality, it actually feels like this is the kind of tactics interrogators would use especially against their own kind. “Red Sparrow” can be very hard to watch at these moments, but this is what we came to see and despite the film’s story utilizing women (and men) as sex tools the film never dehumanizes them in real life, only in the context of the narrative. There are snide comments about how humans thirst for lust is a weakness and it provides social commentary about how much control a woman should have over her own body and mind even in the context of a spy game. It’s brutal, but avoids beating us over the head with its commentary while also letting us know it has a point. That’s rare for a thriller like this and it makes for a heck of an experience if you’re willing to embrace it.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
“Red Sparrow” is LONG! At two hours and twenty minutes it FEELS like two hours and twenty minutes unfortunately and while it was hard for me to pinpoint any major chunks of time we could have seen taken out of the film the pace never seems to pick up making you well aware that it’s a dragged out story. Once the prologue is done (around ten minutes of time before we even see the title card) the film goes through almost an hour of setup before the cat and mouse game even begins. Again, its hard for me to really pinpoint where any fat could be cut off and that’s a credit to the story itself I guess. There’s not a lot of waste with this film, and yet it still feels like a drawn out affair. But, this brings me back to what I said about the acting. Edgerton and Lawrence build this film up to something better than it probably should have been. This is a slow-moving tale that could have very easily been a dry stinker of a story, but its lead actors help bring life to it and make it interesting to watch which is a credit to them, but not to the writing or the pace.
At times the script is bland and the story itself takes so long to play out you feel the time passing by and despite how engaging everyone on screen there were times I just wanted to film to get on with it even when I knew what was taking place was important to the plot. I’m not really sure how director Francis Lawrence could have improved on this but I know he COULD have. This is the mind behind the “Hunger Games” franchise and “I Am Legend”. He even made “Constantine” bearable. In these stories he knew when to drag things out and how to control the story in a way where the audience, for the most part, never had to look at their watches to test how long it’s been to how long it feels like it’s been. Here he just seems to let the movie control the pace instead of controlling the movie as weird as that is to say and while it’s still fun and gripping it’s also surprisingly slow and drawn out.
That’s not even my biggest problem with “Red Sparrow” though. My biggest gripe with the film is the bland villains. It’s the same problem we see in MANY spy flicks. Over the course of the film Egorova encounters a slew of Russian bad guys threatening her to stay the course or even helping her in her mission and they add NOTHING to the story at all. The most memorable bad guy is Matthias Schoenaerts’ Ivan but he never truly takes that step into true evil. Instead the truly evil characters we get are Egorova’s boss in Budapest, a sex-starved pig with a power complex, and a hitman named Simyonov (shown above) who shows up several different times in the film and every time it felt like I was seeing him for the first time. He’s unmemorable and both he and the boss feel forced into the story to give Egorova bland Russian opponents to forcefully justify her working with the CIA. These aren’t necessarily characters that could have or should have been cut out per say, I mean the final confrontation with Simyonov is admittedly the most brutal part of the film, but these are bland uninteresting characters that could have been ANY figurehead. There not memorable and they fail to stand out despite smaller characters getting plenty of credible development. Hell we know more about Nate Nash’s boss than we do the Russian operatives working in tandem with Egorova. If the filmmakers wanted to put in a few foils for Egorova to have to face they should have made them just as memorable and significant as the rest of the cast because they add nothing to the film on their own and by the time their important scenes coem around we’re left without any real connection to the action because we don’t know who they’re fighting, only that we want them to survive. The stakes are one sided and that makes for predictable action regardless of the entertainment value.
So yes, “Red Sparrow” suffers from a few classic spy movie shortfalls including a drawn-out story and unmemorable forced villains, but overall it’s a pretty fun experience. If you can get past the bloated runtime it’s an engaging film with its lead actors taking a just-ok script and making something pretty darn fun out of it. The torture scenes are brutal and memorable, and the nude scenes are tasteful and plot relevant. Most of the secondary cast does their duty to carry the film and the story as a whole is a pretty interesting and fun spy thriller with high stakes for everyone involved and a pretty epic and satisfying conclusion that ties up most of the loose ends. It’s not the most complex story in the world but considering what we have gotten in the spy genre in recent year’s it’s a breath of fresh air. Despite his inability to help the film rise above it’s slower pace, director Francis Lawrence (who by the way is not related to Jennifer) handles the material with dignity and the writers even built in a few moments of social commentary about how the female gender is utilized to fulfill sexual desires without beating us over the head with it. As odd as it is to say, despite the movie being boring at times it’s a well-balanced trip that provides the thrills, keeps you guessing and includes some very worthy performances that need to be seen to be truly appreciated. I enjoyed it and if you have two hours and twenty minutes to waste and a bit of patience I think you will too.