Director Francis Lawrence teams up again with Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in a lacklustre spy movie that wears its politics evidently and too close to the hip, for comfort. ‘Red Sparrow’ is the story of a Russian ballet dancer, Dominika, who is recruited into Russian intelligence and trained in the art of seduction and manipulation.
Sold as a mystery and a thriller, the film tries to depict Dominika as a victim of Russian authoritarian patriotism, the sacrifice-all-for-Mother-Russia ideology that fits squarely into a Western frame of mind. It’s jarring that despite all the Russian accents from American and English actors playing Russians, in various measures of success, and its primarily Eastern European setting (Russia and Austria), the film is told completely from an American Hollywood frame of mind.
At its core, ‘Red Sparrow’ doesn’t try to go deep into its geopolitics nor does it reach for any level of deep profound understanding of sex and desire. It has an overly simplistic view of what men and women want, and who are the good guys and the bad guys. The film feels completely devoid of nuance, and a modern spy movie like this needs it. This isn’t ‘Mission Impossible’ nor is it ‘James Bond.’ There are no high tech gadgetry or explosive action sequences to warrant a ‘good versus evil’ narrative.
‘Red Sparrow’ plays out more like a psychological thriller, a shallow character study of a ballerina who suddenly turns into a master manipulator after a few scenes of training and plays both sides--even the audience--for drama, tension, and suspense.
The film’s narrative is too easy and presents a weak conflict. While Dominika suffers much in terms of pain, she easily manipulates and maneuvers herself into the best possible situations for her to accomplish her goals. There is very little narrative friction happening here. Physical pain is not the same as struggle and the film fails to humanize Dominika to a point where we can feel for her or sympathize.
It is largely part to Lawrence’s portrayal of the protagonist: a stereotypical Russian ice queen, stoic, cold and calculating. It’s quite disappointing when she can be so incendiary like in ‘American Hustle’ or as frighteningly adorable as in ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’ In fact, she could summon her role as the tough-as-nails teen from ‘Winter’s Bone’ and it would probably make Dominika more of a person than this caricature she’s made for ‘Red Sparrow.’
The script by Justin Haythe (based from the novel by Jason Matthews) is so literal that there are moments when you wonder if you are watching accomplished spies at work. A lot of the dialogue feels like exposition. People talking so openly about their feelings and information that it rings false for the genre.
And there’s a whole lot of sex and nudity but it tackles seduction and arousal that is neither primal, profound, nor clever. It offers no insight on desire, intimacy, or pleasure outside from the fact that men just want a beautiful girl.
Except for one really good fight scene, ‘Red Sparrow’ meanders through a narrative that allows Jennifer Lawrence to vamp her way through a spy mission with a Russian accent. An accent that comes off as problematic because while all the Russians speak English, there are moments when people speak in actual Russian that it underlines the film’s artifice.
Maybe fifteen years ago, when geopolitics and international relations weren’t as nuanced as it is today, a film like ‘Red Sparrow’ could slip through the consciousness of a not-yet-woke audience, but this feels like the wrong era to put out a politically two-dimensional portrayal of countries engaged in espionage. The film doesn’t create the right tone or setting for a simplistic view of the world and of sex and desire. As it is now, ‘Red Sparrow’ just feels like a very American reaction to the allegations of Russia tampering with their election.