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,
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.