On paper, “Red Sparrow,” a spy movie based on a book by the same name, written by a former CIA operative seems to have all the ingredients of a blockbuster staple. Unfortunately, the film’s captivating plot is not enough to compensate for its awkward character dynamics and over-the-top political messages.
The movie opens with classical Russian ballet music, and viewers are introduced to a ballet dancer for the Bolshoi named Dominika Egorova, played by Jennifer Lawrence. She breaks her leg in an accident while performing and goes to her uncle Vanya — likely a reference to the Anton Chekhov play, “Uncle Vanya” — for financial help. It quickly becomes apparent that their blood relation will not inhibit Vanya, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, from putting his niece in harm’s way.
After sending Dominika to a politician to extract information from him, Vanya sends her to a school for “Sparrows,” Russia’s intelligence agents who are trained as seductresses to gain information.
After this point, the film’s political themes begin to reveal themselves bluntly. The script often reads like a movie sponsored by the Department of Defense, prioritizing political agenda over subtlety. The ominous nature of the Sparrows is made even more explicit when trainees are told their bodies belong to the state.
When Dominika leaves the confines of her oddly uniformed “whore school,” as she refers to it, the plot twists and turns in ways that are sometimes difficult to keep up with. The involvement of the CIA, notably an operative named Nate played by Joel Edgerton, complicates her travels around Europe.
Although the chemistry between Lawrence and Edgerton has potential, director Francis Lawrence refrains from putting any relationship between them at the forefront of the story. As a result, the relationship often comes across more as a slightly awkward business partnership than it does anything else.
Torture is omnipresent throughout “Red Sparrow,” and the cinematography for torture scenes is reminiscent of those in “Atomic Blonde.” The difference between the two films, though, is that Charlize Theron is a part of the action in a very busy film. In “Red Sparrow,” however, the graphic scenes are disruptive and give the movie a stop-start feel.
The film’s violence is gratuitous, as are Dominika’s motives. Lawrence portrays characters who live inside their own minds well, but this ability does not do the audience many favors.
Though the film is a successful thriller, it fails to find a balance between maintaining suspense and withholding useful information from the audience. As a result, it can be tough for viewers to figure out what each character does or does not know.
Perhaps a trivial criticism, the film also feels out of touch with the modern spy world. In the digital age, it feels unusual that the Sparrows are still needed when hackers do their job much more efficiently. Even odder is the use of floppy disks in 2018 during an information exchange with a U.S. senator’s chief of staff. While admittedly minor issues, the director should have considered these details when bringing an older book to the modern screen.
“Red Sparrow” runs for 141 minutes. Yet, given the lack of clarity or convincing Russian accents, it feels like an eternity. However, the film picks up towards the end, making up for its earlier sloppiness.
“Red Sparrow” lies somewhat awkwardly in the middle of the road. The film was underwhelming, yet not an utter disappointment — solid, but not stellar. “Red Sparrow” is not the film for which the Jennifer Lawrence will be remembered, but it still may be a positive footnote.