A film review by Craig J. Koban March 12, 2018

RED SPARROW jjj
 

2018, R, 139 mins.

 

Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova  /  Joel Edgerton as Nathaniel Nash  /  Jeremy Irons as Vladimir Korchnoi  /  Ciarán Hinds as Alexei Zyuganov  /  Matthias Schoenaerts as Vanya Egorov  /  Joely Richardson as Nina Egorova  /  Mary-Louise Parker as Stephanie Boucher  /  Charlotte Rampling as Matron

Directed by Francis Lawrence  /  Written by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews

 

 

 

 

As far as Cold War themed espionage thrillers go, RED SPARROW is perhaps more grippingly atmospheric, sexual graphic, shockingly and sadistically violent, and sinisterly plotted than just about any other of its kind that I've seen.  

This Russian spy game genre effort will draw obvious comparisons to last year's sensational ATOMIC BLONDE, which was based on a graphic novel and celebrated its wanton neon colored Regan era trashiness like a badge of honor.  RED SPARROW is a different animal altogether in the sense that it's more slow and leisurely in its plotting, and its deliberately methodical pacing favors character dynamics over action.  As a slow burn affair that often dives into some brutally unsavory territory, RED SPARROW deserves props for audaciously taking risks and chances with the material that other meek willed spy thrillers wouldn't.   

The film also marks the re-teaming of director Francis Lawrence (whom made the underrated WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and I AM LEGEND) and star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), as they previously collaborated on the last three HUNGER GAMES films (the second in that series was one of the best pure sequels of recent memory).  It's abundantly clear very early on in RED SPARROW that both star and director are most definitely working outside of their respective comfort zones; this is a film that more than earns its R-rating and, during many scandalous moments, makes an easy claim for pushing the boundaries towards an NC-17 rating.  Lawrence in particular deserves serious props: her character is forced to endure unspeakably cruel hardships throughout the film that lesser actresses would have instantly balked at.  It's her ferocious performance commitment and unwavering courage that's the driving force of RED SPARROW; even as the film nearly implodes under the weight of some of its creative indiscretions you're nevertheless enthralled because of the raw star power on display in it. 

 

 

The opening scenes here are evocative and effectively well orchestrated.  During them we witness Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) performing in front of a packed auditorium filled with her most ardent followers and fans...only to be the victim of a gross accident that breaks her leg in a routine gone painfully wrong.  Concurrent to this in Gorky Park is a CIA mission gone equally afoul, featuring American operative Nate Nash (the dependably stalwart Joel Edgerton).  He's about to secretly meet an informant, but then the police arrive, with Nate barely escaping to a nearby U.S. embassy.  Unfortunately for him, his agency higher ups suspend him indefinitely from active field operations.  Lawrence handles this seemingly incongruent mishmash of prologue storylines with such a cold and calculated proficiency, allowing for our instant buy-in. 

We cut back to Dominika, who has hit emotional and physical rock bottom, fully realizing that her ballet career is essentially over and her ability to financially support her sick mother is in dire jeopardy.  Fate cruelly steps in the form of her Uncle Vanya (Matthais Schoenaerts), a high ranking Russian intelligence officer that offers her a way out, so to speak, from her problems: She will be recruited and trained at a spy academy - colloquially known as "Sparrow School", led with vicious soft spoken authority by its head instructor, played chillingly by Charlotte Rampling - that will train her and her fellow classmates in the art of sexual seduction while molding their minds and bodies to work in the field with ruthless dispassion.  Initially, Dominika sees the training compound for what it is (a "whore school") and is subjected to educational humiliations of the most vile and detestable kind.  Yet, Dominika perseveres and her efforts catch the attention of her uncle's boss, General Korchnoi (Jeremy irons), who gives her a top secret assignment: seduce CIA agent Nate and discover his informant.  Nate, at the same time, is given the same assignment from his bosses, albeit with possible motives to turn Dominika into a double agent. 

RED SPARROW is unquestionably one of year's most handsome productions thus far, seeing Lawrence team himself up with the lush and painterly work of cinematographer Jo Willems, who gives the Eastern bloc heavy locales a consummately slick and sometimes beautifully foreboding sheen.  From the gorgeous exteriors and interiors of Russia - which later traverse to Vienna, London, and Budapest - it's clear that Lawrence is working overtime to give his film a classical old school look and feel that works well in its favor.  The music itself is also a bravura supporting character in its own right, and James Newton Howard delivers one of his most lyrically beguiling scores in an awfully long time, which further helps to cement the nail biting suspense of individual scenes.  For as good looking as RED SPARROW is, it should be noted that this is not a spy thriller that glamorizes the lives of operatives in the field, nor does it make them look debonair and "cool."  The film has a much darker motive than that, and it absconds away with our preconceived notions of what the heroes of these film should be like.  RED SPARROW emphasizes that the spy life is not one of exhilarating thrills, but rather one of hellishly unspeakable sacrifice. 

This is one of the most violent mainstream Hollywood spy thrillers that I've ever seen, but it's not sensationalistic or exploitative (at least as much as some critics would have you believe).  There's something to be said about the litany of indecencies that Lawrence - both as an actress and her character - has to go through in this film.  She's raped once, nearly raped again in a later scene, is horrifically tortured in unflinchingly barbaric detail during one stomach churning montage, and is forced to endure the Sparrow School's, shall we say, devious manner of teaching sex education.  It should be noted, though, that RED SPARROW would only be a tawdry piece of exploitation cinema if Dominika was a weak victim throughout.  To the contrary, she finds an inner and outer strength throughout the film's narrative, learning to shed away her feminine modesty to use both her body and soul as a sexualized assassin to have her way with men.  In a way, she becomes a lethal force in her own right against the sickening predators she's forced to deal with throughout her mission. 

And Lawrence never plays Dominika weak willed character.  She goes from a porcelain like ballet dancer to cold blooded and ruthlessly effective government operative, and Lawrence has a field day portraying this woman's unique brand of weaponized eroticism while trying to mentally stay one step ahead of her prey and attackers.  Even though her accent can be a bit wobbly and unconvincing at times, she still maintains our captivating interest in her character during her seedy journey.  Lawrence is flanked by several other strong and dedicated actors, especially Matthias Schoenaerts, who has to navigate through a morally reprehensible character without directly tipping off him as a purely evil character; he's so economically dialed down and calmly understated in the film that he becomes almost more unpredictably hostile as a result.  Charlotte Rampling, as the head educator at the Sparrow School, is creepily intimidating in her very tricky role; her icy demeanor is quietly frightening.   

The weak link in RED SPARROW is Edgerton, but not because he's a bad actor or gives a bad performance here, but rather that he never really maintains palpable chemistry with Lawrence, which is crucial to the ever- escalating mind games that both of their characters engage in with one another, which is so germane to the plot.  There's also something to be easily said about the derivative nature of RED SPARROW's premise, despite its honest attempts to be tonally different than other spy thrillers that came before it (it's ostensibly riffling on Luc Besson's LA FEMME NIKITA about a downtrodden woman being transformed into a lethal government tool of destruction).  RED SPARROW also keeps audiences at a frustrating distance when it comes to the real allegiances of the main characters and never fully maintains a hypnotizing aura of intrigue about it.  By the time the film culminates towards its would-be shocking and plot twisting climax it's a tad more yawn inducing than surprising. 

And maybe Lawrence's deliberate pacing here gets the better of the film on many occasions.  At nearly 140 minutes, RED SPARROW does invite watch checking from time to time.  Plus, dramatically cold pacing aside, this will prove to be a very tough film for most casual filmgoers to sit through and watch, with some, no doubt, becoming fidgety by the film's elephantine momentum, whereas others could be persuaded to leave the cinema altogether during its many scenes of gory carnage (there were a few walkouts at my screening).  Yet, I'm recommending RED SPARROW, mostly because it serves as a bold and courageous - but not altogether disciplined - antithesis to obligatory spy thrillers that seem to operate these days on pure autopilot.  Lawrence in front of the camera is on full performance beast mode, and Lawrence behind the camera creates a frequently intoxicating visual tableau here that makes it easy to get lost in.  Ultimately, RED SPARROW shows an untamed willingness and uncensored courage to go against the genre grain and be different, which allows for it to overcome its own uneveness.  

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