2018, R, 139 min. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, Joely Richardson, Ciarán Hinds, Sasha Frolova, Sakina Jaffrey.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 2, 2018
Sexpionage – using seduction as a tool of spying – is as real as bugging and assassination. In America, it's called honeypotting. The Russians called men sent to get secrets through pillow talk ravens, while female agents on the seduction career track were called swallows. However, a sex-spy movie called Swallow would be a little on the nose for the MPAA, so we get Red Sparrow. Honestly, torture might be preferable.
Lurching away from the high-budget arthouse controversy of Mother!, Jennifer Lawrence returns to action as Dominika Egorova, a ballerina with the Bolshoi whose career is curtailed by a broken leg. Fortunately her spymaster uncle (Schoenaerts) gives her an option: Become a spy, and seduce CIA agent Nate Nash (Edgerton). First, she must go to Sparrow School to learn both tradecraft and the erotic arts. On graduation, she turns double and triple and possibly octuple agent in what is supposed to be a hall-of-mirrors narrative, but instead is just a tedious back and forth. The idea that she outwits each side so precisely with a couple of weeks of spy school training doesn't make her look like a master manipulator; it just makes them look like idiots.
With Russian intelligence operations on every front page, making a neo-Cold War spy drama seems like a zeitgeist necessity. But Red Sparrow is an antiquated mess that is about as sexual as a Fifty Shades of Gorky Park. Adapted from ex-CIA officer Jason Matthews' novel, it seems too savage to blame an actual ex-spy for creating such a farcical depiction of international intrigue. Instead, it seems more plausible to put the dunderheaded script choices on Justin Haythe. Most recently culpable for the equally muddle-pated and preposterous A Cure for Wellness, Haythe dawdles through an endless cavalcade of Euro-hopping tedium. He also discards everything that made Matthews' novel unique, like Dominika's bizarre synesthesia that allows her to read emotions as colors, or the fascination with local cuisine.
That said, director Francis Lawrence should be sent to his own cinematic gulag. He had clearly built a close working relationship with Jennifer Lawrence on the last three entries in The Hunger Games franchise, but just about every decision here is tone-deaf, tedious, overplayed, and sporadically grisly. He seemingly gets too caught up in the idea that sparrows merely use sex as a tool, but the inevitable seduction scenes are so profoundly anti-erotic that it destroys the idea of any sexual tension between Nash and Dominika. Before that, there's the misguided decision to force every actor playing a Russian part, Lawrence included, to gargle their way through a mush-mouthed Moscow accent. Well, not every actor: Channeling her inner Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia, Rampling's cut-rate exploitation camp commandante smirks through her delivery with all the convincingly Slavic intonations of Natasha Fatale from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
It's not that no one is trying. Edgerton, determined as always, continues to waste his layered everyman persona on high-concept junk (looking at you, Bright), while Schoenaerts gives his Putin-in-waiting spymaster a twisted spin. Shining above all is Jeremy Irons as General Korchnoi: Skeletal and restrained behind shades, like Sisters of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch with Russian Ground Forces rank, he a) treats the endeavor with the smirking disregard it deserves and b) can actually do an Eastern European accent. So that's a plus.
But that's not enough, especially since Lawrence's efforts at a glacial aloofness just read as boredom, and are boring. Coming so close on the heels of another clumsy female-led spy adaptation, Atomic Blonde (which at least had the good grace to be stylish in its stupidity), Red Sparrow plummets to Earth.
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Red Sparrow, Francis Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, Joely Richardson, Ciarán Hinds, Sasha Frolova, Sakina Jaffrey