Lead dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is injured when the lead male dancer does a leap and lands on her left leg, causing a serious fractured that ends her career. Her Uncle Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) works in a high position with Russian intelligence. He offers to make sure she keeps her apartment and provide doctors for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson) if she agrees to help him. He wants her to meet a man at a hotel and swap out his cell phone for a duplicate so the government can eavesdrop on his calls. When she gets the man alone in the room an assassin kills him and takes her to meet with her uncle. Uncle Ivan makes her an offer: Go to a special training school where she will learn the arts of seduction and espionage and her mother will be taken care of. If she refuses she will be killed. Dominika accepts the offer to become what’s referred to as a “Sparrow.” CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has been working an asset deep inside the Russian government for some time. A handoff of intelligence in a public park is interrupted by security and Nash is chased to the American embassy. There he learns he wasn’t about to have his and his mole’s cover blown but was merely going to be questioned about an unconnected matter. His bosses at CIA headquarters are unhappy and send him back to the U.S.; however, his contact within the Russian government won’t talk to any other agent so he is sent to Budapest, Hungary where his presence will likely ring alarm bells in Moscow and get the attention of his mole. Russian intelligence suspects there’s a traitor among them so they send Dominika, who has shown great potential in her time in Sparrow school, to try to seduce Nash and find out who the mole is.
“Red Sparrow” is a languidly paced espionage thriller that feels like it is perhaps three decades out of time. While the setting is completely modern the story is firmly set in the Cold War tensions of the previous century. Spies, moles, femme fatales, double agents, secret meetings, listening devices, dank prison cells where torture is carried out, it all feels dated despite the presence of smart phones, laptops and pinhole cameras providing HD images of clandestine gatherings. Even with a dated concept “Red Sparrow” is rather entertaining thanks to a riveting performance by Jennifer Lawrence that forces the audience to pay attention to every move she makes whenever she is on screen.
The plot of “Red Sparrow” is labyrinthine to say the least. Nothing is as you believe it to be past a certain point in the story. It is a web of deception so tightly constructed that one thread out of place would cause the entirety of it to fly apart. That’s one issue that most espionage thrillers have: They are too smart for their own good making the whole story feel more like a fantasy than a real-world drama. The grungy and drab nature of most of the film’s settings blunts the wilder and more unbelievable aspects of the story.
There is one scene in the film that really undercuts the believability of the story. I don’t want to give too much away as it is pivotal to what follows but a character is given a second chance when a bullet to the brain seems the most likely result of their suspected actions. The fact this character is allowed to live felt far too convenient.
By far the best part of “Red Sparrow” is the performance of Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence plays the part of the ballerina-turned-spy with a cold detachment that might seem boring; however, the character is able to read her target and become what that person needs so she has very little emotion until she needs it to convince her target of her intensions. She is also able to manipulate and intimidate using the same tools. Lawrence gives a performance that is mesmerizing in that she’s able to be cold-blooded in one moment and vulnerable in the next. Whether that is the character trying to throw the other people she is dealing with off guard or these are her true feelings is part of what makes Dominika so interesting.
Sadly I can’t say the same about Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash. Dominika is clearly the character that has had the most thought put into her background and motivations. Nash is merely an obstacle for her to deal with. Nash is a shell of a character. We know nothing about him other than he works for the CIA. There was apparently no thought given to what makes Nash who he is and why he’s a good spy. The only reason we know he’s a good spy is he jumps to some very big conclusions when it comes to Dominika and whether or not she can be turned into an asset. Of course the audience thinks she can be turned because we know she hates being a Sparrow but he has no way of knowing that. Nash is that magical being dropped into films to drive the plot in certain directions whether it makes any sense or not. None of this is Edgerton’s fault as he is doing the best he can with what he’s given but what he’s given isn’t much.
“Red Sparrow” is rated R for sexual content, language, some graphic nudity, strong violence and torture. There are several scenes showing full or partial nudity of men and women. There is one scene of a rape in progress that is interrupted along with another attempted. There are some completely unsexy sex scenes that are used as training exercises at the Sparrow school. There is a sex scene between two characters that has almost no nudity and is one of those movie sex scenes that would never happen in real life. The violence is graphic. We see Dominika’s leg broken with nothing held back. There’s a scene showing the aftermath of a long torture session ending with the death of the tortured. There’s another torture session that ends in a knife fight with lots of blood. There are a couple of bloody head shots shown. We see a woman hit by a truck in the street. There are a couple of people shown being beaten with a cane and other instances of violence. Foul language is scattered.
“Red Sparrow” doesn’t always follow its own rules. While listening devices and cameras are apparently everywhere, the apartment of a known CIA operative in Budapest is devoid of all electronic eavesdropping equipment. There are other examples of “Red Sparrow” ignoring the conventions of the spy genre for the sake of moving the story along and for plot twists. These conveniently missed opportunities by the various clandestine agencies to maintain a watch on foreign operatives are part of what makes “Red Sparrow” a tad bit silly and melodramatic; however the performance of Jennifer Lawrence and a twisty plot that provides opportunities for more stories later on saves the film.
“Red Sparrow” gets four guitars out of five.
This week I’ll be review “Hurricane Heist” for WIMZ.com.
If I have time I’ll also review at least one of the follow:
Strangers: Prey at Night—
A Wrinkle in Time—
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