“Red Sparrow” (2018)
Running Time: 140 minutes
Written by: Justin Haythe
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Featuring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeremy Irons
Matron: “Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become the missing piece, and they will tell you anything.”
Movies like “Red Sparrow” (2018) do not happen by accident, they are designed to not only make money but to launch possible sequels for their stars as well as open up a future for the studio they are made for. Unfortunately things do not always go to plan as is the case with “Red Sparrow” (2018), about a possible spy who uses her feminine wiles to seduce men and women using violence as a last resort while all the time remaining cool, calm and collected. This should have been a big hit movie but there were some serious miscalculations on almost every level which leads “Red Sparrow” being a mawkish mess as well as feeling sterile and unoriginal – what I really wanted to see was a spy movie that kicked butt while having an original narrative that would keep me guessing until the end credits rolled for the inevitable twist you know is on its way – instead I couldn’t wait for the almost two and half hour ordeal to end.
There is no doubt that any studio wants to be in business with Jennifer Lawrence, she is a young Oscar winning actress who has appeared in two full blown franchises for two separate studios, those being the ‘X-Men’ and ‘Hunger Games’ movies for 20thCentury Fox and Lionsgate respectively. Lawrence has proven she can open a movie at the box office all the while being a critical darling who has won an Oscar and been nominated for a few more along the way, all this at the age of twenty seven, she has the world at he feet the only question is who will blink first? At this stage it is looking like it might be Lawrence who seems to be suffering from some kind of identity crisis in terms of what’s next and where to from here? The answer is that the jury is still out but with the underwhelming as well as pretty forgettable “Passengers” (2016), “Mother! “(2017) and now “Red Sparrow” (2018) it appears that while she might be trying to make bold choices they are ending up flat, not bad just bland – the exception being “Mother!” but it was so misunderstood that it was an afterthought in a packed 2017 which saw the cultural milestones being narratives like “Get Out” (2017) and others that forgo star power for a narrative bite, as well as being low budgeted affairs that speak to the times we are inhabiting, offering a definite point of view that audiences are attracted to – not generic genre movies.
“Red Sparrow” directed by Francis Lawrence who has had some real success directing the last three ‘Hunger Games’ movies, obviously making an impact on Jennifer Lawrence so the opportunity to work together again on something they both saw as an adult movie must have been tempting, which is not surprising at all, adapting a novel would have reminded them both of past successes. Unfortunately where the process has broken down is with the screenplay by Justin Haythe who has written a number for movies that have all had narrative as well as plot and tone issues, all present in this new movie that seems to have a mixed plot not knowing what it wants to be while being irrelevant to almost anything one can think of. It also sets up the central character as some kind of worldly vampish character who mopes around stumbling from one situation to another who is held back at almost every turn but for reasons only she seems to be aware of, a tired trope that is normally only reserved for B movies that require simple solutions to complex situations – “Red Sparrow” wants you to think it is a hard hitting adult movie but in reality it falls short in almost every way leaving both Lawrence’s high and dry.
The movie is set in modern-day Russia, Dominika Egorova is a famed Russian ballerina who supports her ill mother. Following a career-ending injury, Dominika is approached by her uncle, Ivan, who works in Russian intelligence. She is tasked with seducing Dimitry Ustinov, a Russian gangster, in exchange for her mother’s continued medical care. As Ustinov rapes her, he is killed by Matorin, a Russian operative authorized by Ivan. Ivan offers Dominika a choice to begin working for Russian intelligence, or be executed so there are no witnesses.
In my mind this movie only went into production because of both Francis and Jennifer Lawrence and little else. In saying that this movie is driven by Jennifer Lawrence, her performance and her wish to play a three-dimensional adult character, one with strengths and weaknesses that would have interactions with multiple other characters as well as being a real physical and mental challenge. To play this character fully as well as believably an actress would require immense talents to not only pull it off and make it 100% believable but to not show any cracks. In my mind even though Lawrence has accomplished so much she is not yet experienced enough to make this movie work. Lawrence is trying to hard to run before she can walk, perhaps guilty of believing her own press in terms of who she is as well as confusing box office success with actual talent, something many people have done over much longer careers. The way in which the character Lawrence is playing is portrayed is as an elegant dancer as well as someone who seems to be worldly one moment and woefully naïve the next, it is extremely up and down and the accent that is attempted is less than convincing, all in all the portrayal is that of a girl attempting dress-up to imitate what she thinks a grown up should be. The remainder of the cast is built up of solid character actors they all seem wasted here in terms of screen time and their actual contribution to the plot. So we have Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, and Jeremy Irons all underserved and playing outlandish caricatures of people we have seen in other far better spy thrillers, I mean even any cold war era ‘Bond’ movie has better thought out Russians than they have here.
My biggest issue was that “Red Sparrow” felt derivative, like any number of movies that are not only more original but have many other things going for them, the biggest one being great stories as well as true thrills that exist apart from the general conceit, that being the spy genre. The biggest influence, or rip off is the Luc Besson classic “La Femme Nikita” (1990) which is so timeless that it has had two television series as well as a few remakes based on the original property, and of course “Red Sparrow” which takes the idea of identity, seduction as well as of course the entire training section, so well done in 1990 so ham-fisted and ill-fitting here. The other aspect of this movie was that in the back of my mind I could not help but wish that I was watching the long promised “Black Widow” movie based in the MCU with the marvellous and truly talented Scarlett Johansson who owns the character in total. In fact these two characters do share some similar DNA but what is interesting is that without knowing the Widow character she is much more compelling than Lawrence’s character whose background is told in almost minute (and dull) detail. Lastly this is a modestly budgeted movie, by blockbuster standards, but my feeling is that it should have been a low budget movie that was completely character driven with a tightly paced narrative, which needn’t have concentrated on a prolonged and laborious origin story, this was ultimately confusing as well as far too long borrowing too heavily from other sources.
This could have been a very good spy thriller but is let down by far to many complicated plots that exist within a too tightly scripted narrative which does not take into account the limitations that exist with the lead actress. Something that would have solved these issues would have been a lower budget, letting the character actors have some breathing space, limit what Jennifer Lawrence had to do onscreen, concentrate on the action and not the needless idea of controlling people through sex which is a flawed idea as it is stating every man and woman has only a sexual identity which is ludicrous, just look at how many people define their lives through train enthusiasm.
I have to say that this movie is not really worth a watch, I would suggest that there are far better movies to watch or revisit, for one the timeless “La Femme Nikita” would be a start or even Fred Schepis’s underrated “The Russia House” (1990), but this one no, give it a miss and hope Ms Lawrence finds something she is more suited to, maybe a low budget drama, which really is where she shines.
“Red Sparrow” is out now on DVD & Blu-ray.