Sex, in many regards, is power. At least that’s how Red Sparrow sees it. The new film — based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews — hinges so crucially on the sexuality of its lead character that it is easy to forget this is supposed to be a spy thriller and not an erotic psychodrama. But perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
When Red Sparrow begins, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a renowned ballerina, but after a devastating injury, her career is tragically cut short. Enter her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who uses this opportunity to recruit her on a secret mission for the Russian government. From there, Dominika winds up being trained as a “Sparrow,” part of an elite squad of spies that uses seduction to manipulate others. After a rocky training period, her first mission as a full-fledged Sparrow takes her directly on a collision course with CIA Agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton).
Female-led spy films are nothing new, and the fairly generic setup of Red Sparrow left many comparing it to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Although the two characters share a common backstory, Red Sparrow is far less of an action film than audiences may be expecting. In fact, virtually all of Dominika’s training scenes center on her ability to shed herself of sexual inhibition and otherwise debase herself in favor of accomplishing an objective. To be fair, exploring this kind of blind patriotism is a smart angle for a film like this to take. Alas, this film doesn’t really do that.
Like so much of the political commentary that may have arisen from Red Sparrow, it’s all simply set dressing for what amounts to a pretty run-of-the-mill tale of betrayal, mistrust and deceit. The film’s erratic pace and bloated 139-minute runtime don’t help matters, and there are no truly unforgettable character moments or action set pieces to keep audiences engaged. Instead, Red Sparrow attempts to take on compress too much story into a single narrative and falls under its own convoluted narrative weight. Thank goodness that Lawrence has the ability to elevate virtually every project she works on.
At her best, the Oscar-winning star lights up the screen with a charisma and presence startling for an actress her age. So she is easily the best part of Red Sparrow, embodying the vulnerability and dispassionate sides of her slippery character in equal measure. Part of Lawrence’s skill set as an actress is to nail these two performance styles with ease, as evidenced from her work as The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, X-Men‘s Mystique and even Silver Linings Playbook‘s Tiffany Maxwell (arguably her three most widely-seen roles). Even when Red Sparrow‘s story seems bland or inscrutable, she barely holds it together.
Aside from Lawrence, Red Sparrow largely wastes its talented cast. Jeremy Irons, Mary Louise-Parker and Ciarán Hinds are all wasted in nothing roles, and Charlotte Rampling — as the Matron of the Sparrow training program — sadly doesn’t have enough screentime. Schoenaerts and Edgerton, thankfully, lend fine support when they’re onscreen. However, their characters are so one-dimensional and undefined that they hardly register. The focus here is rightfully on Dominika, but the lack of development for anyone else still prevents Red Sparrow from creating an immersive world.
That’s a real shame because an espionage thriller about a young woman who chooses to weaponize her own sexuality could have been an intriguing deconstruction of a genre that has been done to death a million times. If Red Sparrow had delved into the potential empowerment Dominika felt in her new role, then director Francis Lawrence (no relation) could have explored the dichotomy between the objectification of women that so often plagues spy films and the sense of power that operatives like Dominika (and, yes, Black Widow) wield in such situations.
But Red Sparrow has no such lofty ideals on its mind. A halfhearted twist late in the film attempts to restore some agency to Dominika but fails to justify the story that precedes it. Without a smart story at its core or any breathtaking action sequences to compensate for it (see: Atomic Blonde), Red Sparrow winds up being the kind of shrug-inducing star vehicle that many wrote it off as when the first trailer dropped. What, one wonders, led Lawrences Francis and Jennifer to reunite for this after the last three Hunger Games films? The former has proven he can bring a certain visual flair, but you wouldn’t know it from this one.
In short, those looking for a female answer to James Bond will walk out of Red Sparrow disappointed. The film isn’t aggressively bad, but in a way, being mediocre is almost worse. At least embracing a certain B-movie charm might have brought some personality to it all. As it stands, the film is only required viewing for moviegoers desperate for more J.Law.