REVIEW: ‘Red Sparrow’

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.

Shaped by Inner Conflict

As Bolshoi ballerina turned Soviet seductress Dominika Egorova, Jennifer Lawrence hones an inner conflict that’s shaped many of her previous roles. In the adult wold of ‘Red Sparrow’ however, Dominika’s torment is buried behind eyes more determined than Ree Dolly’s (‘Winter’s Bone’ – 2010), and features more hardened than Katniss Everdeen’s (‘The Hunger Games’ – 2012-2015) .

That ‘Red Sparrow’ takes it’s time to develop should further strengthen such characterisation, but with it’s 140 minute run-time rarely gleaning the suspense it should, Lawrence’s subtler moments feel as lifeless as the film’s main event.

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Promising Beginnings

Things start differently, with director Francis Lawrence applying a cold, cinematic tone reminiscent not of last years lucid ‘Atomic Blonde’, but more in keeping with John Frankenheimer’s ‘Ronin’ (1998), Brian De Palma’s ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996), or Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011) .

Like the Sparrow’s themselves, Lawrence’s style is distant yet inviting, but following the immersive opening scenes (which, like it’s comparatives, transpire to be this film’s best), this growing sense of detachment soon devolves into boredom.

Director Francis Lawrence’s cold, cinematic style produces an immersive opening, but a growing sense of detachment soon devolves into boredom

Collision Course

By inter-cutting the build up to Dominika’s ‘special’ life abruptly ending (courtesy of a horrific on-stage leg-break), with C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton) botching a Moscow mission, we instinctively know that these characters are set to collide. When they eventually do, however, ‘Red Sparrow’ stutters rather than soars, and the aforementioned lack of zest is crystallised by a ‘relationship’ desperately lacking in chemistry.

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Justin Haythe’s screenplay (based on ex-C.I.A. operative Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel) must indicate one of three things. Either it’s all about the mission for both Nate and Dominika; the two really are falling for each other; or one agent is using the other’s affection purely to benefit their nation. On-screen however, all possible motives are unclear, and if that’s an attempt to construct an intriguing cat-and-mouse mystery, it simply doesn’t translate.

‘Sparrow’ finds itself juggling characters, relationships and subplots in increasingly limp fashion, and as it does so, it quietly and irretrievably crashes.

Hidden Motives?

It would be easy to blame Egerton for the failings of this central relationship, but whilst he never excels in his role, the actor does nothing wrong either. Nate Nash is almost inevitably underwritten: his flaws are too slight, his stakes are too low, and he’s fleshed out with clunky exposition. ‘Sparrow’ may be Lawrence’s movie, but it too often leaves Egerton treading water.

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Dominika’s motives feel weak too, with a miscast Joely Richardson in the role of her sick mother further diluting the stakes. Audiences can accept that, with her accident forcing her out of the Company bankrolling her mothers care, Dominika needs a new employer; but tackling an ensnarement mission for intelligence officer ‘Uncle Ivan’ (Matthias Schoenaerts), feels like a leap.

School for Seduction

That ‘mission’ quickly degrades into gory violence and a rape attempt that – like several scenes that follow – arguably goes too far. Shades of  90’s-era Paul Verhoven (‘Showgirls’) continue as Dominika enters what she later calls ‘whore school’. It’s a brutal training camp where budding ‘Sparrows’ learn to ascertain and exploit their targets’ hidden desires by stripping naked and performing sexual acts in front of the class, and under the scrutinising eye of ‘matron’ (a perfectly cast Charlotte Rampling).

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These ‘school’ scenes often make for difficult viewing, and unlike the director and star’s previous collaborations (the ‘Hunger Games’ sequels), no crossbow training or martial arts take-downs occur here. Dominika does, however, fight off another rape attempt before she embraces the power of her sexuality on her terms during a particularly explicit scene.

Throwback Mediocrity

On paper, ‘Red Sparrow’ has landed at an ideal time: not only does an Oscar-winning actress drive a female-led narrative, but it’s U.S.-Russia spy game perfectly compliments the current political climate. Whether the exploitative journey of Dominika Egorova – as daringly performed by Jennifer Lawrence and voyeuristically shot by Francis Lawrence – is in line with the present (and overdue) Hollywood revolution, is for individual viewers to determine.

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What is undeniable is that by returning to the polished tension of it’s opening, the film’s finale is both a thrilling conclusion – with it’s triple-cross reveals and incisive acts of vengeance – and a damning condemnation of the listless scenes it picks up from. Among those are two torture scenes that are too restrained to shock but too telling to provoke, landing somewhere between similar moments in ‘V for Vendetta’ (2005) and ‘Die Another Day (2002).

‘Red Sparrow’ could have been a daring proposition, but key narrative moments are either too shocking or too uneventful to produce a meaningful whole

These comparisons are admittedly somewhat unfair. Lawrence steers well clear of the CGI shambles that sunk Brosnan’s Bond, and whilst Dominika’s ‘origin story’ overshadows the film’s core plot, ‘Red Sparrow’ should be commended for eschewing modern action for classic espionage. Yet it remains a film desperately lacking urgency, and an ill-advised stab at comic relief (Mary-Louise Parker’s drunken U.S. official) is no substitute for a much-needed injection of Bourne-esque flair.

Plunged into Medicority

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Ultimately, the flaws in ‘Red Sparrow’ outweigh the positives and plunge the film into mediocrity. An ensemble of in-sync actors is blighted by a few miscast faces, an immersive opening is sullied by a stagnant middle, and sharp espionage is blunted by awkward melodrama.

Marketed as a mainstream blockbuster, this thriller could and should have been a daring proposition, but it’s key narrative moments are either too shocking or too uneventful to produce a meaningful whole. In the end, ‘Red Sparrow’ will likely be remembered as an interesting genre footnote, rather than an expectation-defying blockbuster.

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