“Red Sparrow” severely disappoints


Jennifer Lawrence in the 2018 film “Red Sparrow.” (Photo courtesy of IMDB)

“Red Sparrow,” how I do dislike thee. Let me count the ways. You take ambitious leaps and for that I cannot fault you, but my gosh do you fall short of whatever you aimed for. The movie (based on a book of the same name by former CIA agent Jason Matthews), directed by Frances Lawrence (“Hunger Games: Catching Fire”), places Jennifer Lawrence in the shoes of Dominika Egorova, a skilled Russian ballet dancer whose leg is broken during a performance. She must find a replacement job to help pay for her mother’s healthcare, who is chronically ill with character-motivation-itis. She ends up taking an offer from her uncle who works in the Russian government to try and charm information out of a man of interest.

Here the ambitious leaps start, and the film wastes little time letting viewers know what they signed up for. Egorova takes her target to his room, aiming to replace his phone with a phony replacement from her uncle. Before she knows it, he is ripping off her underwear and rapes her. Suddenly, someone comes from behind the man and begins strangling him. We then get a shot, collarbone up, of Lawrence having blood splattered over her face and chest. While you would expect this incident to scar someone for life, the film only brings up this scene when it wants to remind the audience why Egorova has to work for the government.

Yes, this film is absolutely brutal. It has skin grafting, broken legs, bones poking out of skin, bondage, plenty of torture scenes, and don’t forget about the nudity. No one is saying this film needed perfect puritan values, but the film’s content goes above and beyond the call of duty in terms of an R rating, so it is worth pointing out.

Most of the nudity comes soon after the rape scene when Egorova is sent to Sparrow school, where she is trained to be a spy who must use her sexual appeal to gain valuable information. The movie does make some interesting points in terms of how she chooses not to submit to the school’s teachings. She chooses to only flaunt her body when she wants to or when she knows it will benefit her. While interesting, it is a shame this idea is not treated with the respect it deserves during the rest of the film. Once Egorova gets out of the school – which the film paints as a terrible experience for her – she does not use anything we see her “learn” except maybe once or twice. That’s not often, given the film’s length 140-minute run time.

It feels even longer because it can’t keep any interest in its plot. “Red Sparrow” presents itself as mystery-thriller; the only problem is that the filmmakers seem to have forgotten to include a mystery.

A mystery involves asking the audience a question, laying down a trail for the audience to follow and placing clues just out of focus so the audience might go down the wrong path.  Instead, “Red Sparrow” poses the audience a question, does not address this question through most of the film,and then answers a different question that no one in the audience was asking.

Outside of its “mystery,” the film doesn’t commit to any consistent tone. After Egorova leaves the Sparrow school, it becomes more about a romance between a CIA agent played by Joel Edgerton, who is trying his best at an American accent. There is never any chemistry built up between the two, making the love story difficult to get invested in. This romance is interspersed between the graphic violence, which creates a jarring contrast. While the love plot might be there to ground the film in reality, it too often has the effect of tearing the viewer away due to how out of place it feels

The final nail in the coffin is the characters. The movie is littered with horrible accents, and Jeremy Irons, Lawrence and Edgerton are among the worst offenders. Worse still is the fact that no one is developed at all.  Egorova is by far the most interesting character, never revealing where her loyalties truly lie, but the focus on her becomes a detriment to the others. Irons and her uncle are key players in the plot, but they feel like any other men in suits outside of their recognizable faces. Edgerton gets more time than the others but it’s hard to buy that his mistake-prone character is a hardened CIA agent.

“Red Sparrow” has some interesting scenes and interesting themes, but it fails to bring any of them together into a single interesting mystery or drama. It doesn’t build intrigue in its characters, it jumps around tonally, and it ultimately delivers a ho-hum story. The author of the book, Jason Matthews, has said the CIA is mostly paperwork, not action. But doing paperwork is what sitting through this felt like.