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tv + film by Philbert Dy

‘Red Sparrow’ Fails to Sense its Own Silliness

Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian spy in a ridiculous thriller

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Red Sparrow follows Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, speaking English with a faux-Russian accent), a ballerina at the Bolshoi with an uncle that works in Russia’s intelligence services. She suffers a career-ending injury, and faces the prospect of losing the modest apartment that she and her mother live in. That’s when her uncle makes her an offer, which eventually leads to her training as a Sparrow, an intelligence agent specifically trained in the arts of seduction. She’s sent to Budapest to connect with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is key to discovering a mole deep inside the KGB.

This is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, and it’s pretty lurid stuff. At one point, Dominika tells her uncle, “you sent me to whore school,” and it’s a completely accurate assessment. Amazingly, in spite of how central sex is to this story, the movie itself isn’t very sexy. Nor does it really have anything interesting to say about sex and the power games that it might entail. Instead, it’s a movie that becomes mostly about poor spycraft, the plot built almost entirely on supposedly elite agents making bad choices.

The film seems ready-made for high camp, with its Russian-accented artificiality and lurid sex-as-a-weapon premise. But the movie seems to mainly treat this stuff seriously, even as things get decidedly silly. It’s really strange to say, but very little in this picture could be called “fun.” It’s ploddingly paced, its runtime extending beyond an unreasonable two hours. There’s very little action, its scenes overly focused on concealing a big twist that isn’t really much of a twist at all. The sex in the movie feels listless and perfunctory, as though everyone involved was just uncomfortable with the content.

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It makes for a very strange conceptual dichotomy, as the film’s mostly stoic tone seems to suggest that they are trying to say something real about Russia or women or sexual power. The script takes great pains to avoid referencing current events, but it openly speaks of Russia as an abstract symbol of general oppression. And inasmuch as Russia and its president factor into the conversation about a lot of nefarious things going on today, to have the film play this pulpy material as plainly as it does feels a little squicky.

The role does fit the strengths of Jennifer Lawrence, whose visible intensity and determination are used to pretty great effect. On the other hand, the choice to have her speak English in a Russian accent creates moments of pure goofiness that detract from her performance. A supporting cast made up of some pretty big names suffers from the same problem. Joel Edgerton displays precious little chemistry with Lawrence, and is never able to make his character work. The standout in this film is Mary-Louise Parker, who seems to be the only person in the cast that embraces the goofiness of the material.

Red Sparrow is a film that doesn’t seem to know what it is. The lurid material calls for something more out there than the workmanlike, professional direction of Francis Lawrence. And it might call for a star without the status of someone like Jennifer Lawrence. There’s so much silliness in it that the gravity and talent of the actress actually works against it. But Hollywood doesn’t really make the kind of full-on trashy cinema that would better suit this kind of source material. And so, we get it all dressed up in weirdly serious trappings, making everyone look kind of ridiculous in the process.

Philbert Dy
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.